Damian Harris spent the better part of two decades researching child abductions for Gardens of the Night, a fictional saga about one young girl's ordeal after being snatched away from her parents at the tender age of 8. That dedication to getting the details right, however, doesn't save his film from missteps typical to stories about such topics, as the tendency to exploit lurid material for dramatic purposes is something he can't avoid. Still, as a serious-minded attempt to trace both the literal and psychological means by which abductors carry out their plots, Harris' tale is not wholly without merit and, with regards to its portrait of kid-snatcher Alex (Tom Arnold), occasionally flirts with complexity. Generally refusing to simplify characters or scenarios, his film strives to burrow into the mind of captured 8-year-old Leslie (Ryan Simpkins), who - in an extended flashback instigated by 17-year-old Leslie's (Gillian Jacobs) lies about her family history to a teen center counselor (John Malkovich) - is tricked into trusting and traveling with Alex and his skuzzy teen cohort Frank (Transamerica's Kevin Zegers) while on her way to school one average, sunny day.
Harris tautly stages the kidnapping, mapping out how Alex uses a lost-dog ruse in the morning to gain Leslie's trust, so that when he reappears during the afternoon claiming that her parents are in trouble, she's relatively comfortable hopping in his car. A quick shot of Leslie giggling in the school bathroom at classmates trying on lipstick is a piercing hint of the innocent adolescence that will be lost, as well as a foreshadowing of the adult world she'll soon be forced to enter, with Alex eventually pimping Leslie and an African-American boy named Donny (Jermaine "Scooter" Smith) out to adult clients. These rendezvous, also set up by another scumbag (Jeremy Sisto), are captivating but mostly in a tawdry way, the director's aim to generate tension from these horrific encounters proving slightly unseemly, despite the fact that - save for a late-act incident - he doesn't explicitly depict sexual activity. Not helping matters is the fact that Harris relies on sensational particulars to hammer home the ugliness of Leslie's situation - for example, a dirty old judge's request that Leslie wear a ballerina dress for their night together is, in a subsequent shot, revealed to be driven by a not-so-subtle desire to have incestuous relations with his own daughter, a discovery that isn't illogical as much as mined for slightly tasteless dramatic surprise and disgust.
If, irrespective of noble intentions to treat its subject mater with empathy and sensitivity, Gardens of the Night can't find a way to steer clear of manipulative tactics, it nonetheless portrays abductors' mind-games with reasonable sobriety. Alex is a monster with a premeditated plan of attack for both the actual snatching as well as the aftermath when the kids are forced to acclimate themselves to a new, terrifying reality. Rather than simply acting the fiend, Alex slowly constructs a scenario in which Leslie's parents seem disinterested in recovering her and he, cooing compliments into her ear during meals or baths, is cast as the caring uncle determined to see her through this painful new phase, which he likens - after her maiden encounter with a john in a dingy motel room - to that of a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly. Arnold's sweaty, overly earnest parental routine captures the canniness of captors' methods, in which kids are made to feel alone and thus desperate for their wardens' supposed support, with the film pinpointing these dynamics during scenes featuring Alex - shooting an abusive john, or delicately strong-arming Leslie with talk about their "secret" - preying upon Leslie's longing for adult protection.
Once Gardens of the Night jumps forward to follow grown Leslie and Donny's lives as street hustlers in San Diego, however, Harris finds it increasingly difficult to sustain both plot momentum and insight. Although his use of punk rock (versus the intro half's twinkling piano) shrewdly reflects his character's scraggly situation, his reliance on recurring motifs proves a serious slog. Bathtub imagery and lines of dialogue from Leslie's childhood reappear during the somber film's latter action to illustrate how abducted kids, left to navigate the adult world with only screwed-up childhood lessons to fall back on, are drawn to replicate the destructive behavior done to them. It's a valid point but one inelegantly made by Harris' schematic repetitions, which soon become so plentiful that they sabotage his story's immediacy. Whereas an early shot of young Leslie's feet dangling off a bed in Alex's house strikingly articulates her terrified point of view, the mounting number of screenwriterly gestures are finally debilitating, none more so than a running device in which young Leslie reads from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, an earnest attempt to process the unthinkable through comprehendible literature that, in Harris' insistently poetic hands, comes across as merely a symbolic contrivance.