Review:  ‘Free the Nipple’ a provocative take on real-life movement

Going topless in New York is legal, but a character is, nevertheless, arrested for public nudity.
(IFC / Sundance Selects)

“Free the Nipple” is a bright, scrappy satire inspired by a real-life movement to nationally legalize a woman’s right to go topless in public — just like a man can. Director and star Lina Esco keeps this compact film moving with enjoyable buoyancy until it bids adieu with a showy climax that needs a serious postscript.

Esco plays an aspiring Manhattan journalist simply named With, who, with the help of gutsy women’s equality activist Liv (Lola Kirke) attempts to start “a full-scale culture revolution” in defense of open breast-baring. That female toplessness is legal in New York and many other states doesn’t always stop arrests for public nudity, as demonstrated by the movie’s opening in which Liv lands in jail for sprinting around Wall Street au naturel.

With and Liv, along with a band of other female warriors (a.k.a. Girlrillaz) including a Black Panther’s progeny (Monique Coleman) and a pink-haired beauty (Casey LaBow), get their campaign in gear — workspace, financial assistance, and media and promotional support are all resourcefully maneuvered — with an eye toward a major topless rally in Washington, D.C. But legal, monetary and emotional complications ensue, causing the “Nipple Liberation Front” to rethink their protest strategy. Suffice to say, New York City is in for quite the eye-popping display of female crusaderism.

The script by Hunter Richards (based on a story by Esco, Richards and Sarabeth Stroller) explores, with varying degrees of depth, such vital issues as censorship, obscenity, gender equality and society’s greater acceptance of violent images over those involving sex and nudity. However, conflating the 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater shootings with a jump into the pro-topless pool by With feels a bit specious.


Engaging performances, a kicky soundtrack (a cover of “Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma” sung by avowed feminist Miley Cyrus is an inspired choice) and an impressive use of a range of Manhattan locations enhance this provocative trifle.


‘Free the Nipple’

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes

Playing: At the Arena Cinema Hollywood