Within the first seconds of Bella Thorne’s new porn film, Her & Him, a woman snuggles her boyfriend in bed before saying, smokily, “Hey, can you pick up some cat food tomorrow?” (Bow chicka... .) The girlfriend, played by Abella Danger, then gives him a kiss of thanks and walks into the bathroom to brush her teeth, where she shouts, “Where’s my washcloth?”
This is how Her & Him, a film produced by the tube site Pornhub and directed by Thorne, in her porn debut, sets the mood: a quirky protagonist who likes cats and brushes her teeth with a washcloth. (I would expect nothing less from Thorne, who, it bears mentioning, has 19 cats and is anti-toothpaste, preferring coconut oil.) That mood continues unabated in Thorne’s chaotic, BDSM-esque film, which features nutty dialogue, hearty emasculation, and a buunnnnch of phallic knife imagery. Its most viscerally compelling penetrative shot is of a knife repeatedly entering into a man’s chest. Sexy stuff!
Last week, this oddball film earned Thorne, who is credited as the screenwriter, a “Vision Award” at the newly-created Pornhub Awards. To be clear: Pornhub (a site owned by tube-site behemoth Mindgeek, which is currently gobbling up the adult industry) awarded Thorne a prize for a film that it produced, at a ceremony that it produced. Still, this shameless publicity ploy, a Pornhub specialty, succeeded in reminding me that Bella Thorne, she of former Disney fame and current cat- and drama-related infamy, had made a porn film. So, I watched it.
So is Thorne’s dalliance in porn “visionary”? Well, it certainly pivots from the genre, seeming to take more joy in explicit shots of murder than sex. The 30-minute short, which is part of Pornhub’s experiment with making adult content with first-time guest directors, promptly unveils its bizarre set-up: Small Hands (a tattooed rocker type who does not, for those wondering, have small hands) asks to borrow his girlfriend’s phone and finds a browser window open on a Google-like site with the search phrase “how to kill your boyfriend and get away with it.” Seemingly convinced that his girlfriend, played by Danger, is going to do just that, he grabs a knife in the kitchen; noticing, she responds, “Oh, is it playtime?” Danger advances on him, purring, “Can’t you see this game of cat and mouse we have going on?... I feel like such a monster, sizing up my prey before I put a little salt and pepper on it.”
They aggressively make out before he pushes her away and, in the process, her head hits the kitchen counter. There follows this memorable bit of dialogue:
Danger: “That was a little rough, don’t you think?”
Small Hands: “You’re trying to kill me!”
Danger: “What, you’re no longer down with this dominant, prominent pussy?”
Small Hands (for all of us): “Wait, WHAT?”
Here is where I must stop to explain that all of this happens against the backdrop of the couple’s self-consciously whimsical apartment (not unlike Thorne’s own home, which, among many other things, features a very large dinosaur statue). It’s filled with random tchotchkes (a skeleton cat sculpture, for example), stone-y art projects (a headboard hand-painted with the letters “XXX” alongside a collage of paper flowers), and an assortment of neon lights (including a glowing “#HUSTLE” sign in the kitchen). The soundtrack, composed by Thorne’s ex-boyfriend Mod Sun, skips and starts, going between dramatic sound effects seemingly meant to convey emotion (a beating heart, a gun being cocked) and horror movie music. The audio of the couple’s dialogue frequently warps such that it suddenly sounds like they’re under water. The overall effect is that of an acid trip.
The same could be said of the dialogue itself. There’s follows this exchange, for example:
Danger: “I’m gonna rip you apart, limb from limb.”
Small Hands: “Wow, I would be super fucking horny if you weren’t trying to kill me.”
Danger proceeds to belittle the way he’s holding the knife, calling him a “pussy,” and takes it from him, holding it near his crotch. Then she runs the knife across her tongue, making herself bleed. “I’m gonna stick this knife so deep inside of you,” she says, channeling Freud, Hitchcock, et al., “and then I’m gonna suck on your insides.” Mkay!
She then feverishly stabs the knife in the air with a close-up on her face, only for the camera to pan back and show that she only stabbed the wall above his head. You don’t see the knife entering the drywall, just the holes it leaves behind, which, turns out, is representative of the sex scene that follows, which is absent any penetrative close-ups. There is real sex happening, for sure, but it’s shown at arm’s length. A blowjob is performed fully behind a curtain of Danger’s hair. Here, it feels, someone from outside the adult industry dropped in to say: “Hey guys, get this, have you ever thought about not showing the action?”
In fairness, there are some lingering, sensual shots of sweat beading on Small Hand’s chest and back that both rival a straight-up PIV shot, IMHO, and momentarily counteract all of the trippy weirdness of setting and plot.
This softer core approach, though, seems to have not gone over well with viewers, who have complained in the film’s comments thread on Pornhub with things like, “Well that is about what i would Expect from porn made by someone from the Disney channel” and “the plot was written by what seems like An edgy 8th grader” and “I never thought I’d see something that would make the fifty shades films seem like a competent porn substitute, but here we are.” (The harshest burn, though: “Did Avril lavinge [sic] write the script.”) Currently, the film only has a 36 percent approval rating on the site.
In the end, we learn that—SPOILERS!—Danger never did that internet search for “how to kill your boyfriend and get away with it.” The whole time, she had been under the impression that they were just doing some (very poorly negotiated) kinky role-play. Instead, it was her friend, who recently borrowed her phone, that did the search. Cue footage of said friend vividly stabbing her boyfriend, and this time the penetration shot is shown! In detail! And with vivid sound effects! Again and again and again! Here’s the real money shot of the film: a man getting murdered, violently and gleefully, by a woman. It’s heavy-handed, turn-the-tables, gotcha-back feminisms that implies all sorts of potential interpretations of Thorne’s views of both porn and heterosexual sex and power.
Is this a visionary masterpiece from a 22-year-old who has never before made porn, and who, due to her mainstream fame, waltzed right into the industry and got to work with two of its top talents right off the bat? I am not at all convinced! I wish celebrities like Thorne would take their porn dalliances more seriously by giving the genre its due and respecting the art of arousing viewers, instead of treating it like a film school experiment and personal branding exercise.
Here is what I do know: I will never get the phrase “dominant, prominent pussy” out of my head, and I’m not mad about that.