Belle Knox Biopic ‘From Straight A’s to XXX’ Gets a ‘C’ (Review)

Like Belle Knox herself, From Straight A’s To XXX is stuck in an awkward position. Knox lived a dual life of pornstar and student, and Lifetime’s recent biopic about her tries to live the similar parallel existence of salacious porn exposé and thoughtful, incisive telefilm. Knox ultimately wasn’t able to balance the two, and nor is this movie capable of succeeding in its competing ambitions.

On the face of it, the movie is generally a fairly by-the-numbers “movie of the week,” the sort that used to populate the major networks but have now been largely banished to basic cable. The opening scenes find Miriam Weeks (later to become pornstar Belle Knox) gaining acceptance to Duke but soon realizing that she may not be able to pay the university’s sky-high tuition. How will she manage her bills? Work study is a no. Well, how about adult entertainment? At a compact 82 minutes, the movie doesn’t have time to linger on the process that made Weeks decide to turn to porn. In a discussion with her roommate about solutions to her financial woes, Weeks not-so-rhetorically asks, “Or I could become a pornstar?” The movie is neither witty nor subtle enough to focus on this key moment, or present it in a way that gives it the requisite heft. It seems designed to be ripped from context and plopped into a TV promo, which is indeed exactly what happened.

To be fair, the movie faces a fairly significant challenge from the very start. How do you portray a porn-based story in a cable TV format, where nudity and graphic sex are still off limits? Well, you try to enliven the material by other means, and that’s where Straight A’s begins to waver. The filmmakers introduce a series of flashy cinematic devices to emphasize the importance of social media in the story. When Belle pulls out her phone to send a tweet, the text flies onto the screen in an overlaid graphic. When she breaks up with her high-school boyfriend, the camera focuses in on a stylized representation of her Facebook profile as unseen hands deftly change her status to single and post a reflective quotation about moving on. When her pornstar life is exposed and her classmates begin to turn on her, the rude social media comments dance into the frame, getting quite literally into Knox’s face.

These effects are utilized throughout in a sometimes desperate attempt to prop up a movie that’s missing a very essential component: sex. Sex is a cinematic act. Sending a tweet isn’t. Updating a Facebook status isn’t, no matter how stylishly you present it. Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher were able to turn social media into something dynamic and theatrical in The Social Network, but that’s beyond the capabilities of a humble TV effort like this one. Meanwhile, the sex scenes in Straight A’s are stagy, forced and cartoonish (a point thoroughly and convincingly explored by Peter Warren in his AVN analysis of the movie). As a result, the movie lacks any interesting visual or thematic core and is left fluttering in the sort of soap opera territory that Lifetime movies are infamous for.

The movie also suffers at times from its limited budget. When Knox attends the awards ceremony to collect her win for Best New Starlet, it becomes obvious that the filmmakers did not have enough resources to convey the true sweep of a huge awards show. Thin clusters of extras at tables don’t impart the razzle-dazzle of AVN or XBIZ (amusingly renamed as the ultra-generic “Risqué Porn Convention” here), detracting from the overall authenticity of one of the movie’s key sequences. Knox did not, in fact, win Best New Starlet at AVN or XBIZ, but in this case the dramatic license used by the filmmakers actually works in the movie’s favor. Giving her a big award win does lend the movie’s final act a certain focus that it probably wouldn’t otherwise have. (Interestingly, Knox’s only real-life major awards win was for XBIZ’s Best Marketing Campaign, an angle on the story that Straight A’s oddly does not take, even with the constant mentions of social media.)

Biopics like this one can sometimes be propped up by a strong central performance. The Iron Lady had a weak script, but Meryl Streep elevated the movie with a remarkable turn as Margaret Thatcher. In this regard, Straight A’s does benefit from the presence of Haley Pullos as Knox/Weeks, who is occasionally able to trascend her soap opera roots despite the thinness of the story and dialogue here. Her performance grows on you as the movie progresses. When confronted by an eager autograph seeker, her sly shift in tone on the line “Sure! That’s 20 dollars!” is one of the movie’s subtlest comic highlights. She also very deftly plays a sequence where a taxi driver recognizes her when she hops in to head off to the airport. Both annoyed and pleased by the driver’s attention, Pullos approaches this moment with actorly aplomb worthy of a better movie.

In the end, A’s and XXX’s aren’t what the Belle Knox story needed. The only letters in the alphabet that could have done this story justice are H, B and O, the one channel that probably would have given the Knox controversy the dramatic, unflinching treatment it required. Maybe the Kendra Sunderland story will fare better? As it is, this Knox won’t be the belle of anyone’s ball, even on basic cable.