Pretty Baby (1978) is a historical drama best known for its controversial portrayal of prostitution in the early 20th century. Directed by Louis Malle, the movie was one of the earliest projects for a then 12-year-old Brooke Shields. The controversy involves a nude scene with the young Shields, which has since been edited on all current DVD copies of the film. Set in 1917, the movie centers on the remaining months when prostitution was legal in the famed red light district of New Orleans.
Hattie (Susan Sarandon, in one of her earlier roles) - a prostitute working at a New Orleans brothel - is struggling to raise her young daughter, Violet (Shields). A photographer (Keith Carradine) comes to the house seeking to photograph the women. The madame (Frances Faye, in one of her final roles) agrees, but only if he pays first. The photographer is E. J. Bellocq, a real-life figure known for his photographs of such places in New Orleans in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Violet is fascinated by E.J., as he returns on a regular basis to take photographs of the women working at the brothel. She is starting to have romantic feelings for him, but believes he is interested in her mother. Nell auctions off Violet, which initiates a bidding war among the regulars. Hattie desires to escape a life of prostitution and marries one of her customers and moves to St. Louis. Violet is left behind with the promise that Hattie will return for her when she can.
Hattie's new husband believes Violet is her sister, which causes her to hesitate to tell him the truth. A frustrated and impatient Violet runs away and finds E.J. The two engage in a relationship, but the photographer appears more interested in her as a subject of his work. Violet decides to return to Nell's brothel. When the city cracks down on red light district prostitution, E.J. returns with an offer to marry Violet. After the wedding takes place, Hattie returns to New Orleans with her husband to bring Violet back with her to St. Louis.
Violet refuses to go at first, even as her mother argues that the marriage is illegal since it took place without her consent. E.J. must decide whether or not to let her go. While Violet wishes to stay and maintain her independence, that may not be what is truly best for her. Will E.J. let her go or will Violet remain in a situation that limits her potential? The movie offers an ending worth waiting for.