Gardens of the Night
Dir: Damian Harris
City Lights Pictures
Gardens of the Night is a movie with altruistic intentions that still can’t help but become mired in the exploitative nature of its subject matter. Director Damian Harris portrays in vivid detail the all-too-real problem of forced sexual slavery in our country and the emotional fallout that plagues its many victims. Beginning with the abduction of eight-year-old Leslie (Ryan Simpkins doing her best with a terrifying role), Gardens of the Night chronicles her initiation into prostitution, a trade which she will still practice well into adulthood. Though the subject matter is important, Harris treads a fine line between showing us the horrors of abduction and rubbing our faces in it.
Leslie is an innocent, suburban child kidnapped by the creepy Alex (Tom Arnold), who uses a variety of ploys to make his victim believe he is an employee of her father. Even though the terror of her situation is palpable, Alex acts with the facade of a caretaker (and he may actually have tender feelings for her) but pimps her out to a variety of sleazy characters. I am convinced there is no way to film (even suggest) the rape of an eight-year-old child that does not implicate the audience as well. Is it damning for us to sit by and watch it happen? In the darkness of the theater, we are anonymous in our helplessness.
Also abducted is Donnie (Jermaine Scooter Smith), an African-American boy that Alex uses for the same sinister purposes. Leslie and Donnie, naturally, form a bond to protect them from the horrible reality that surrounds them. Together they escape into the world of The Jungle Book, a slightly hamfisted attempt by Harris to compare these “lost” children to Mowgli. At one point, the children swear to meet up at an amusement park in Florida if ever separated. It doesn’t take a genius to see how this film will end.
Somewhere in the middle of Gardens of the Night, the film moves forward 10 years. Leslie (Gillian Jacobs) and Donnie (Evan Ross) are now living a homeless existence, sleeping under a San Diego boardwalk and prostituting themselves for money. There is no explanation of how they escape Alex and soon Leslie is fleeing to a homeless shelter for purposes not entirely philanthropic. You see, Leslie has essentially become Alex, using his tricks to recruit young girls into her world of tricks. Harris may be blunt when demonstrating the violence is cyclical, but the emotional impact of the journey hits home.
That said, this powerful film is undercut by a lot of poor directorial decisions. Well-known actors (such as John Malkovich and Harold Perrineau) show up in bit roles, obviously lending face for a humanitarian venture. But these cameos remind us this is a movie, and so lessening the impact. Harris also uses the theme of the bath (beginning when Alex forces Leslie to undress before him) constantly. Underestimating the intelligence of an audience is a bad thing and repeated metaphors don’t just sink in, they annoy. That said, Gardens of the Night is a potent movie about an important topic. Despite Harris’ inattentiveness and poor judgment, it is a film that should be seen about an issue that we cannot just walk away from when the lights come on.
by David Harris