A challenging drama about a teenager who is kidnapped as a child and then forced into prostitution could prove too downbeat for some audiences, while others will respond to its courageous depiction of life on those eternally mean streets. The presence of Tom Arnold—completely out of character—as one of the abductors and John Malkovich as a care worker give it a certain star appeal. The young leads, Gillian Jacobs and Kevin Zegers, may prove a draw in some quarters and help box office numbers.
The directorial debut of Damian Harris (son of the late actor Richard Harris) spares no detail unveiling the horrors of the trade. Seventeen-year-old Leslie struggles with a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets of San Diego with only her childhood friend Donnie to look after her. Both of them are trying to cope with the trauma they suffered nine years earlier.
The story unfurls initially in an extended flashback. Eight-year-old Leslie (Ryan Simpkins) searches for a lost dog with two men Alex (played by Arnold in a career-changing performance) and Frank (Kevin Zegers). The girl reluctantly gets into their car when they tell her that here has been a crisis at home.
Leslie shortly finds herself imprisoned in a grimy house with a young black boy called Donnie (Jermaine “Scooter” Smith). The confused children do not have to wait long to find out what's in store and bond with each other to survive.
Cue for a flash-forward some 10 years, and we find them damaged and vulnerable to more damage as they perform for the gratification of clients who are obsessed with the need for “young meat.”
The only blip in an otherwise impressive directorial debut is the sequence when the girl (played as a teenager by Jacobs) is reunited with her parents. Somehow, it doesn’t ring true and detracts from the narrative’s ultimate plausibility.
Statistics purveyed by the filmmakers suggest that 58,000 children are abducted in the U.S. every year by non-relatives, and that a third of the 1.3 million kids living on their own in the States are in prostitution or pornography. With many films these days talking about social injustice and children in peril, Harris’s offering is distinguished by its unsensational tone and the constant nagging feeling that the events shown could happen anywhere.
The photography by Pauld Huidobro, like everything else, is understated yet makes a powerful impact.
The film has been attracting attention on the international festival circuit. When I caught it at the Festival of American Cinema in Deauville, it won the critics’ prize but also was well received by the public.
Distributor: City Lights
Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Tom Arnold, John Malkovich, Ryan Simpkins, Kevin Zegers, Evan Ross, Shiloh Fernandez and Jermaine “Scooter” Smith
Director/Screenwriter: Damian Harris
Producers: R.D. Robb and Thomas Franchot
Rating: Not yet rated
Running time: 92 min.
Release date: November 7 ltd.