Dir. Damian Harris, US/UK, 2007, 110 minutes.
Gardens Of The Night begins as 17-year-old Leslie (Gillian Jacobs) enters a homeless shelter in San Diego, and then flashes back to her kidnapping a decade earlier by two men who force her into prostitution.
Damian Harris's grim tale dramatises a case history from a growing industry. The audience for a film on this subject is potentially as large as the public that reads tabloid stories of abduction and sexual slavery, and the subject defines the horrific side of globalisation.
Young emerging stars like Gillian Jacobs and Kevin Zegers are a draw. John Malkovich in the role of a sympathetic case worker could rouse some of his fans, and Tom Arnold as a sensitive kidnapper/pimp could bring in a portion of his US television audience.
Yet the well-meaning Gardens Of The Night probably won't reach a much broader public than Trade, last year's more violent saga by Marco Kreuzpaintner about young women and children trafficked for sex.
In extended flashback, eight-year-old Leslie (Ryan Simpkins) searches for a lost dog with two men (Alex/Tom Arnold and Frank/Kevin Zegers), and then gets into their car when they tell her that here has been a crisis at home.
She ends up confined in a grimy house with a young black boy called Donnie (Jermaine 'Scooter' Smith). Soon enough, the confused kids learn what's in store, and bond with each other to survive. On the street years later, they are damaged, and vulnerable to more damage.
The script attempts to do many things as it weaves back and forth through time, between sex slavery and the tender gentle world that Leslie and Donnie try to create as they read passages from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.
Too often, Harris's characters try clumsily to telegraph the logic of the industry and of sexual predators. Arnold as sweet-talking Alex (the 'good' predator, as opposed to Kevin Zegers's 'bad' kidnapper) comforts Leslie with talk that he must have heard as an abused child.
The young child's first 'john' (Perrineau) walks through another lesson in abuse. Harris's message is clear: this could happen next door - but sometimes the tone can feel more expositional than dramatic.
Sequences with the teens hustling on the street in San Diego cover much familiar territory in a familiar way.
As the young Leslie, Ryan Simpkins is superbly cast as the serenely pretty child who sees exactly what is happening to her but can't escape. Close-ups shot by DP Paula Huidobro can be heartbreaking.
The older street-smart teenage Leslie (Jacobs) looks too America's Next Top Model to be a girl who has lived a brutal decade as a prostitute on the run with her pimps. A homecoming that reunites Leslie with her parents is even less believable.
Over the end credits, you can see where this movie's heart is. Statistics on-screen report that 58,000 children are abducted in the US every year by non-relatives, and that a third of the 1.3 million kids living on their own in the US are in prostitution or pornography. The numbers are as disturbing as this film would like to be.
La Nuit Americaine
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Jermaine 'Scooter' Smith
Gardens Of The Night