Meet two dozen women who brave full exposure. The pole dancing students in the awkward, but intimate Netflix documentary “Strip Down, Rise Up” have allowed Michèle Ohayon, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker (“Colors Straight Up”), and her crew of mostly women, to observe their six-month introductory class guided by the celebrity instructor Sheila Kelley, who once prodded Conan O’Brien to twirl on late night TV.
The opening montage announces that erotic dance heals the female psyche from wounds inflicted by shame and trauma, and then sets out to prove it, thrust by thrust. Platform spike heels become an obvious metaphor for relearning how to strut. Ohayon is a disciple herself, hence the infomercial vibe.
Kelley’s lessons morph into group therapy sessions, where her pupils shed more tears than clothing. (The one girl who’d simply joined for kicks quits.) But those with enough trust to bare their histories — betrayals, sexual abuse, mastectomies, weight gain, insecurities, repressive religious households — seize ownership over their bodies. These scenes are genuinely moving: a 50-year-old widow purges the pain of her late husband’s affair, a survivor of abuse by Larry Nassar, the disgraced Olympic doctor, reconnects with her limbs. It’s a pity, then, that Ohayon’s choppy structure rotates through her subjects like amateur night. Each has a few minutes to reveal their scars before the jukebox replays the same inspirational maxims.
Elsewhere, “Strip Down” interviews women with a different approach, including a Cirque du Soleil performer focused on gravity-defying artistry and an athlete who knee-spins on street signs to rebrand pole dancing as public sport. The athlete, an ex-Mormon with her own hurtful past, hopes her competition piece, set to a poem by Rupi Kaur, will bring the judges to tears. But it’s a testament to Ohayon’s empathy that she measures winning a silver medal at the Golden Gate Pole Championships as equal to that of a class participant struggling to climb the pole at all until she gets a boost from five of her new friends.
Strip Down, Rise Up
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. Watch on Netflix.
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