Suffering from "issue fatigue"? That would be an understandable response to the fall movie season, in which a flock of serious, issue-driven, adult-oriented dramas clamor for attention. In most cases, the filmmakers are sincere in their desire to convey a message or sound a warning. Too often, however, fictional films collapse under the weight of good intentions. Documentaries have an inherent advantage in that they ostensibly portray a measure of truth, while dramatic treatments are immediately suspect due to their obvious need to create a story arc that will obey the rules of narrative storytelling and provide a degree of entertainment value. It's far too easy to fall into the trap of melodramatic plot devices, Dickensian coincidences and third-act "twists" that surprise no one.
Holly, which opened yesterday in New York before expanding later in the month to other cities, does not entirely avoid conventions. A simple synopsis sounds like a thousand other well-meant movies: shady Patrick (Ron Livingston) agrees to do something for fellow American Freddie (Chris Penn). His motorcycle breaks down and he is stranded at a brothel overnight, where he encounters Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12 year old Vietnamese girl who has just been sold into prostitution. His heart goes out to her pathetic situation and he tries to save her. He also crosses paths with a slick, slimy brothel customer (Udo Kier) and an earnest welfare worker (Virginie Ledoyen).
My initial reaction was to recoil at the prospect of yet another movie in which a Noble White American Is The Only One Who Can Save Yellow (or black or brown or whatever) People In Developing Nations From Themselves And In The Process Save Himself. But director Guy Moshe and producer Guy Jacobson, who collaborated on the script, are smarter than that.
To begin with, Patrick is far from a noble American in search of salvation. He's not quite an Ugly American, but he's leaning in that direction. We're introduced to him in Cambodia as he wins a big hand of poker and is promptly cheated out of his winnings. His friend Freddie, a bar owner, tries to help him out by convincing him to make a delivery. It's not spelled out, but clearly it's something illegal. Patrick has no qualms about engaging in criminal activity, but neither is he especially interested in doing anything. He lacks any ambition or initiative; even his instinct for self-preservation has been beaten out of him by the passage of years. It's as though his life-blood has drained out of his soul, leaving behind an empty shell.
In this context, his role of Supposed Savior (as well as his nationality) makes sense. He's not looking for somebody to save, he's just reacting to whatever passes in front of his eyes. As an American, he gets a "bye" at times, allowing him to get away with certain things, but he's also subject to a great deal of assumptions. For example, after he ends up renting a room in the aforementioned brothel, he sits in the adjoining patio cafe and everyone assumes that he's there to have sex with a young girl. It's a natural assumption to make, considering the setting. It also incites his own personal sense of outrage and may, in fact, be what leads him to take action later. It's as though he's asserting to others -- and perhaps also telling himself -- "I may be a low-life, worthless piece of garbage, but even I know that pedophilia is abhorrent and offensive."
Patrick's set-up is paralleled by a simpler one for young Holly. We pick up on her running away from the brothel and promptly being recaptured. The details are quickly established without being lingered upon: we've seen enough dispiriting little rooms dominated by cheap mattresses to know the score. It's no surprise that the Madam rules her house of prostitution with an iron fist or that slightly older prostitutes are jealous of the new girl.
Throughout the opening sequences, what makes the film distinctive is the spare, subtle approach of the filmmakers. Sometimes it's a little too subtle; I probably missed a couple of plot points because I was lulled by the low-key pace. While it's easy to get lost in the images, that's actually a good thing because it makes the case that every country offers scenic beauties which sometimes diguise diseased conditions. The filmmakers create a visual and aural environment that envelops rather than assaults.
As a result, the actions of the characters appear organic to their surroundings. Along with Patrick, we've become accustomed to a number of ugly truths, but Holly's plight goes beyond the pale. Patrick is stirred to take action, even as it becomes apparent that he is not the right man for the job. But who is? What can be done about 30,000 young girls sold into slavery by their families?
To the film's credit, it offers no easy answers and does not sidestep stickier questions. It gently questions Patrick's motives -- why Holly? As repulsive as he proclaims the idea of adults sleeping with children, why was he moved to try and save this particular 12 year old girl?
Ron Livingston turns in a controlled, admirably restrained performance. He avoids flashy displays of theatrical emoting, instead relying upon a minute tightening in his expressions and body language to communicate volumes. Udo Kier is suitably unctuous as a father who revels in the pleasure of the flesh. Virginie Ledoyen is properly dignified as a kind voice of experience. In one of his final performances, Chris Penn brings a quiet weariness to his role. Thuy Nguyen is both appealing and heartbreaking as Holly.
Holly builds to a final shot that is a punch to the gut, leaving behind a haunting, indelible image.
The press notes say that the film was shot entirely on location in Cambodia, most notably in a village that was notorious as Phnom Penh's red light district, and that the cast and crew had to work under heavy guard to capture the look and feel of a place that is still under control of the Vietnamese mafia. The authenticity definitely bleeds through.
Visit the film's official site for more details and to watch the trailer. Visit RedLightChildren.org to learn more about the Redlight Children Campaign, which is devoted to promoting awareness and practical action for reducing the number of children who are sexually exploited each year.