Steven Soderbergh is a cerebral filmmaker and, not surprisingly, his characters often live with their emotions compartmentalized. The lead character in THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is no different. Chelsea (adult-film actress Sasha Gray) is a high-priced escort whose strict set of rules for dealing with clients allows her to maintain a seemingly healthy, honest relationship with her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer. But when a new customer invites her on a weekend excursion, she accepts, even though she knows this violates her bond with Chris. All of this transpires during a few weeks in October 2008, when the country is embroiled in both the presidential election, and, more importantly, the sudden economic downturn--Soderbergh consistently underscores that money is the chief concern for Chelsea and Chris, and everyone around them. She negotiates with a web designer to create a site that will build her notoriety, and contends with the extortions of a sleazeball blogger (movie critic Glenn Kenny). Meanwhile Chris tries to convince his boss to make him a partner at the gym, and accepts free trips to Vegas from one of his clients.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is among the best of Soderbergh's "little" films (BUBBLE, SCHIZOPOLIS), ventures where he recharges his artistic batteries and tries out new techniques before jumping back into the world of superstars and big budgets. The casting of porn star Grey gives the director exactly what he wants: a flat, uncharismatic performance that gives the character mystery. Other than money, we're not sure what motivates her, and that's the point: Chelsea doesn't know either. For those inclined to follow Soderbergh down every nook and cranny of his career, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is a welcome reminder of how probing he can be about matters of the heart.