When we first meet Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), a 20-year-old Swedish girl with dreams of stardom, she’s at an airport in Los Angeles coming into the United States for the first time. Linnéa describes her native Sweden as “boring” later in the film. When the TSA agent questions her, he asks, “are you here for business or pleasure?” Linnéa’s choice of ‘pleasure’ sets up the crux of director/writer Ninja Thyberg’s film. On the surface level, people may view the porn industry as just a structure where people go to indulge in all their animalistic urges. For some, that may be true. However, Thyberg, who composed a 2013 short film of the same name, wants to bring the audience behind the camera — there’s a physical, mental, and emotional cost. Linnéa slowly but surely morphs into her alter ego, Bella Cherry — sometimes those identities war with each other, and in others, one gives way to the other.

Thyberg’s directorial vision regarding Pleasure takes shape early on during Linnéa’s first “scene,” where she’s justifiably nervous surrounded by a few men serving as a pseudo-encouragement choir. This setup and cinematographer Sophie Winqvist Loggins’s choice to film the more explicit scenes from Linnéa’s point of view are themes that grow in importance as the film goes on. Linnéa lives in a model house with three other actresses. At first, she’s shy and standoffish, but eventually becomes friends with the energetic, rebellious Joy (Revika Reustle), who helps her become more confident.

Joy’s character serves as the lively graffiti against the world comprised in Pleasure because to rise in the industry to become a “Spiegler girl” (the equivalent of an A-lister), you have to be willing to do a variety of difficult genres. It’s a constant pressure Linnéa faces if she wants the level of stardom she seeks — and Thyberg commits to displaying an authenticity of how difficult a decision could be. The film is just as interested in showing the audience behind-the-camera setup and off. Parts of it Pleasure pull back the curtain on how these scenes get comprised and the makeup of those directing them. When Linnéa meets Ava (Evelyn Claire), a rivaling physical embodiment of where she wants to be, the Bella Cherry aspect of her takes over. She sheds some hesitancies she had before joining the porn industry to move into riskier territory to get noticed.

The free-flowing nature of Pleasure comes from having real porn stars like Reustle, Claire, and others become immersed in this ecosystem naturally. Thyberg and co-writer Peter Modestij dives into a dramatic aspect of friendships, deceit, ambition, and exploration in a way that doesn’t overpower the main message the film is trying to convey. Pleasure’s focal point comes from the performance of Kappel, literally and figuratively — as she commands scenes from emotions of innocence at first, then the gradual morphing of what the business does to her character. We only know little about Linnéa’s background, aside from a phone call to her mother. However, the film moves at a pace where the audience gets to see her in the present, sifting through a wide variety of emotions of her L.A. dream.

Unfortunately, some sides are less than glamorous and even dangerous. The one female director Linnéa works with is interested in her well-being and comfort level. Otherwise, women in this film are subjected to the unfair and relentless expectations of the male gaze. Female actresses are subject to abuse of all kinds and are subject to gaslighty, emotionally manipulative dialog for them to continue the scene. Thyberg effectively touches on some societal biases with other characters as well. Bear (Chris Cock) is a “fetish” actor simply because he’s a Black male. When he first meets Linnéa and describes this to her, she says, “isn’t that kind of racist?” And yes, it is — Pleasure is meant to provide both the good and the bad with a cautionary rags-to-riches tale. However, the film’s greatest triumph will be to humanize the business that many still consider taboo.

Yes, the pornography business has factors like any other job would — harassment, the need for more, and hierarchy, to name a couple. But it’s also in the quiet moments or laughs and crying outside the camera where impressions will be just as impactful.

Photo Credit: Neon Pictures