“So you went domme on a dare,” a co-worker remarks to the eponymous protagonist of Remedy. It’s one of the movie’s more memorable lines. It’s also the reason I watched this flick in the first place: a dare. I challenged myself to sit through a movie about a twenty-something who lands a job as a pro-switch in a midtown Manhattan commercial dungeon even though I’d already lived that exact experience. Because it’s an incredibly specific kind of sex worker story, I anticipated that this depiction would either be inaccurate to an enraging degree, or familiar enough to require drinking away the feelings it dredged up. To put it simply: I knew that viewing this would be unpleasant, and I did it anyway. It seems Remedy (newcomer Kira Davies) and I share a certain mentality as well as a job title.
We share much more than that, actually. The movie is said to be “based on [writer and] director Cheyenne Picardo’s own experiences,” but I hadn’t anticipated the honesty of the details. Remedy goes to SMack!, a long-running fetish party in the New York scene, she meets a domme who can get her a job at a dungeon a few blocks north of the Herald Square subway stop, which is where I used to work, and then she meets the clients. Oh, the clients. Remedy’s clients are painfully real, in all their whacked-out, hairy, sweaty, groping, preachy, leering, cordial, charming, and manipulative incarnations. I don’t just mean that they’re plausible. No, despite the obligatory legal disclaimer, the resemblances to persons still quite living is undeniable for those of us who know them. I gasped as Remedy was introduced to her first client (played by the perfectly gross Chris Reilly), a certain dental fetishist familiar to everyone in the New York house scene. This movie isn’t just realistic; sitting through it was like watching my own biopic.
I admit that it’s hard to get past the shock of watching someone who looks just like you doing just what you did with the very same people you were doing it with. I admit that this two-hour movie took me nearly four booze-soaked hours to get through. I admit that I have quite a lot of feelings about it, and that I am not an impartial observer, not at all. Then again, neither is the professional critic whose only experience with the sex industry is that time he went to a strip club for a bachelor party, or the stripper who’s never set foot in a commercial dungeon.
Remedy isn’t the Happy Hooker story a lot of strippers, dommes, and other sex workers might prefer it to be. It’s also not the typical Tragic Sex Worker Story or the Fallen Woman Redemption Tale, but it is absolutely unsparing in its assessment of what it’s like to work in a commercial house. In fact, it’s not quite brutal enough in its take on the bottom half of a starkly segregated industry, likely because working conditions have deteriorated rapidly and consistently over the past several years. Whereas independent dommes and subs used to look down on houses from a Kinkier-Than-Thou standpoint (the BDSM version of the Serious Professional attitude), criticisms of houses are now equal parts scorn and concern. It’s not just that rushed sessions cheapen the psychological experience of a BDSM scene; it’s that houses are becoming the kinky version of the massage parlor, with all the legal risks that entails.
There are a few oblique nods to criminalization in Remedy, but the all-pervading anxiety that lingered for years after the 2008 raids isn’t present. There is the palpable uncertainty when Remedy subs to a client she hasn’t screened herself, but there is no indication that her house will refuse to blacklist him if he turns violent. Perhaps most strikingly, Remedy is forbidden to do submissive sessions at first. Many houses now encourage switching from the start; some even require it.
Remedy is a brutal movie not because it’s reinforcing any particular sex work stereotype, but because it’s telling one very particular and very real kind of sex work experience. It’s a testament to a form of work that has only existed for a brief period of time in only a handful of cities, and which may not exist all that much longer.
Remedy is therefore an important movie. It’s also a beautiful movie. The direction is surprisingly powerful for a debut film, particularly in the pivotal scene with The Man in The Suit (Tim Bohn). This is the typical sub session gone bad: the client isn’t a psychopath, not even close. He hews just inside the lines of acceptable behavior, until he doesn’t anymore. Even then, there’s the question of whether he’s doing it on purpose, or whether he’s going to pull back, and as you try to figure it out, as you try to decide if you should safeword or scream for help, the world folds in on itself. It’s subspace combined with survival mode; you can’t act, can’t think, can only try to breathe through it. Davies acts the hell out of it, and Picardo’s script pushes the scene about as long as it can go.
I held it together until the coda. Whereas other directors would have cut after The Man in The Suit leaves, Picardo, as a former sex worker, knows not to fade to black. She knows that you don’t get to regroup after a session as bad as this. You have to go back to the room and—this was where I finally teared up—you have to open the trunk and pull out the spray bottle of alcohol and the roll of paper towels. You have to clean up.
The movie becomes a little predictable from there, maybe even clichéd, but it maintains its realism; crying in the shower is a cliché for a reason. Such scenes might seem to pull from the old bin of Sex Worker Story tropes, but Picardo ignores that context like she’s never even heard of Les Miserable or Moulin Rouge! Remedy isn’t iconoclastic: it’s operating on a parallel plane. It’s one of the few instances when it’s appropriate to say “It’s a stereotype because it’s true.”
The riskiest choice Picardo makes here isn’t the subject matter or the story arc, anyway. It’s the pacing. All of the scenes with clients run on longer than they should, while scenes featuring Remedy with her co-workers are too short. It’s absolutely purposeful. The viewer wants to see what Remedy wants to see: less of the emotional vampirism of her clients, more of the effortless camaraderie that lurks beneath the jaded and outrageous exteriors of her coworkers. The closest we come is in the lengthy retelling of one coworker’s favorite session. Remedy—and, by proxy, the viewer—anticipates some charming or whimsical tale, but her co-worker (played by the excellent Ashlie Atkinson) tells an unbelievable horror story featuring a man with a genital deformity she dubs Elephantitis Nut. The tale ends with him bloodied in a wheelchair on a street corner, and her co-worker laughing her ass off. I know the lack of perspective she reveals—no shock, no horror, no fear or guilt—is meant to tell us something serious about what it’s like to work in a house dungeon for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, I worked in a house dungeon exactly long enough to agree that Elephantitis Nut (who is indeed every bit as real as you don’t want him to be) completely deserves his comeuppance.
The film is by no means a litany of horrors. It shows the positive moments and even the mundane ones. This is working in a house dungeon, in all of its awkward, bizarre, horrifying, hilarious, heart-wrenching glory. This is also the story of entering, and the story of leaving. That’s not a spoiler: we all leave, eventually. We learn what we need to, and when we can, we move on, either to independent BDSM work or something else entirely. Picardo moved on spectacularly, and I raise my (fifth?) glass of whiskey to her in admiration and respect. Remedy is still making the festival rounds, and I sincerely hope it gets the distributor it deserves. It’s real in a way few sex work movies are.