Due to my meat sack being faulty, I spend a lot of time at home and couch-bound. Which means I spend a lot of time playing Pokemon* and watching Netflix. Despite this I seem to always be behind on things I'm "supposed" to watch, or people are telling me to watch. I also spend a lot of time scrolling through Netflix seeing what's new. This is where I found The Client List. The description caught my eye: single mother turns to sex work and ends up tuned into all of the town's gossip. The last sentence is even "Can this double life lead to a happy ending?" which made me think that this was going to be almost a romcom? A movie about a sex worker taking some agency and maybe getting into some mischief with all she knows about everyone's secrets.
I could not have been more wrong.
The movie opens with Sam and her husband off to the bank to beg for an extension on their mortgage payment since they've fallen on hard times. So already I have been lied to, she's not a single mom. Her own mother swings through to look after their three kids while they're gone, and reminds her daughter that she can and should use her looks to get her way. Which she promptly tries to do, and manages to convince the bank manager to give them the extension with her freakishly perfect memory of the conversation they first had. Still, it's a stall tactic. She and her husband are both desperately searching for jobs when she finds one the next town over at a place searching for massage therapists! Perfect! She's a licensed massage therapist! We all know where this is going. It's not just massages they give. She takes the job ignorantly, walks out when she finds out what they really do, and when she realizes between she and her husband they have a dollar to their name, she slinks back.
The movie spends the rest of its time showing us how morally reprehensible sex work is and how Sam remains sympathetic because she was driven to it out of desperation. We also see that she's very good at her job because she actually talks to and engages with her customers. The movie wastes an excellent opportunity to explore that more, and brushes it over just to explain why she's so popular and is being given lavish gifts by her johns. So, first it's sex work, but she's just running herself so ragged because... uuuuhhhh.... We never actually get a good reason why she can't scale back on her own hours (something we get told very early on she has the option of doing), but we're assured that she's working ever so hard and too much, all for her family! We're shown her just being super tired a lot until she nearly falls asleep at the wheel and one of her johns gives her some coke. Naturally, if you're a sex worker you're also doing coke? She says no at first, but as she struggles to keep up with the demands of motherhood and sex work, starts to use to give herself the extra kick.
Her whole issue boils down to: she needs to scale back at work (which we are given NO reason for her not to be able to do) but refuses to. We're supposed to feel sorry for her as she goes down the "wrong" path but again, I just keep seeing someone who doesn't know how to balance life and work, and I don't know that she wouldn't have gotten into trouble in any job that offered enough hours for her to run herself ragged. We're supposed to assume it's all the sex work being so demanding, but we see her getting up early and getting home late and are told what long hours she's putting in. Her issue isn't that she's a sex worker, it's that she has no work/life/self-care balance.
Eventually things go to total shit and the cops raid the place and she's all over the news. Her husband had no idea what she was doing and this is how he finds out. He takes off with the kids while she and the other girls try to make a plea bargain for less jail time in exchange for a list of their johns (this is where the movie gets its title). Sam, with her perfect memory and excellent rapport with her clients, is able to provide enough to get the sentence from minimum two years to 30 days and a 2 grand fine. So far the movie has done nothing but say "sex work is bad and will ruin your life". Only after serving her sentence (both jail time and a separation from her husband) and finding her way back to the "right" path (waitressing as she goes back to school to provide for her family "honestly") that she gets her life back and forgiveness from those around her.
This movie is a mess. It nearly goes places and says something a bunch of times but veers from one place to the next too quickly. She at one point admits that she didn't dislike the work, and that she liked the way her clients treated her, but that is all swept aside as part of the reason why she is Bad and Wrong for what she did. Saying "well, it's not what I wanted, but yeah, it wasn't all bad" would have made for a much more nuanced and interesting ending, but no, sex work=bad. Even as she and one of her former co-workers are lamenting the money loss, they both seem to agree it's for the best. At one point her mother apologizes for telling her that her looks would get her everywhere in life, and that she should have fostered the importance of other traits, but that's not really explored either, nor the other ways that message would seriously mess up a kid. Just: yeah, that's part of why she thought this was an okay thing to do. The women go from church to her home at one point to ask her for help since, because their husbands were going to sex workers, they personally felt they were doing something wrong. Nothing around female bonding or forgiveness or the expectation on women to please, or husbands being unfaithful not being the wives' fault, just a cute cut away after Sam grabs some bananas to start giving tips. As far as we can tell, these women all still loathe her, if their response to her apology is any indication. The movie could have been potentially somewhat salvaged if only it had taken some of these scenes just a little bit further. The only consistent messages are "sex work is bad" and "counting on your looks is bad".
I'm disappointed. Not in the movie (okay in the movie too), but in myself for getting my hopes up. I should know better than to hope for, well, anything from mainstream media about sex workers with nuance or substance. I mean, can't have a movie saying that women get into sex work for different reasons, many stay because they like it and it lets them balance finances, work, and life more easily. Or that many balance parenting and their jobs just fine without developing a drug addiction. The other girls Sam works with don't seem to have any of these problems, but that'll never get explored. Just look at how having sex for money destroyed this poor woman's life! Saying anything else might give girls ideas about the choices they might have, or, lord forbid, maybe help to destigmatize sex work so maybe it'll get decriminalized and these women can do their jobs in safer environments! Can't have that. No, better make another movie about a woman ruining her life with it. Again. That's safer.
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