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BERLIN (Hollywood Reporter) - Films about social issues usually exude the deadly aura of good intention and earnest edification, but Damian Harris zones in on his characters in "Gardens of the Night."
The film gives vivid reality to those photos of disappeared children on milk cartons by letting us peek into the lives of two abducted children subjected to sexual abuse and then prostitution.
The writer-director shuns sensationalism but does sentimentalize the friendship between the two youngsters, seen as children and then as thoroughly messed-up teens. The strength of the film lies in acting performances that make everyone human, even the monsters.
More festival exposure is assured, but only a brave distributor will take on such a tricky subject; it screened here in competition. The film might be better suited to home entertainment markets.
Harris reportedly spent years researching and writing his script, and it shows. The small details feel right, leaving us to accept the utter horror of the larger details. In quiet, subtle ways, his story shows how such things happen and why children gradually lose the will and ability to call out for help. While a screaming child and Movie of the Week fiends might have made a slicker, safer product, Harris takes pains to keep it real. The truly sick thing here is how nice the villain is to the children.
Alex (Tom Arnold in a performance of considerable nuance) and his much rougher partner Frank (Kevin Zegers) clearly spent time laying a trap for their young victim. Leslie (Ryan Simpkins), a lovely, blond 8-year-old, is too bright to simply get into a stranger's car. A level of trust and seeming familiarity are carefully built before the two kidnappers can spirit her away from her East Coast home.
Leslie finds herself sharing space with a black youth her age, Donnie (Jermaine Scooter Smith), who believes his institutionalized mother sold him to Alex. Leslie, who can read while Donnie can't, uses children's storybooks and her own imagination to create a fairy-tale world into which the two youngsters can retreat, a "jungle" where they feel safe from an adult world that has grown frightening.
The two cling to each other, forging an indissoluble bond. This has become their greatest resource when the film leaps ahead nearly a decade to San Diego. Now veteran street hustlers, the two live on the streets while selling their bodies or scamming potential clients.
Leslie (Gillian Jacobs) is the rock of Donnie's (Evan Ross) shattered existence, the one sustaining force in his life and only source of affection. Those who would further exploit the two see a need to drive a wedge between them: Leslie, now a beautiful young woman who can project a tarnished innocence, is a valuable commodity. She also could help recruit younger girls to the trade, putting her in the exact same position as "Uncle Alex." Donnie, meanwhile, is viewed as a "loser."
By the time Leslie comes to her senses, Donnie has vanished. Then a wise counselor (John Malkovich in an unflashy cameo) at a shelter for runaways and homeless kids goes to the trouble to investigate Leslie's story. She honestly believes her parents are dead, but he locates them.
Can Leslie really go home again? And how many abducted kids ever get that chance? Harris raises such questions within this tragedy without ever mounting a pulpit. He lets connections get made and themes to emerge through the interaction of the two youngsters and how they perceive a hostile world. The only thing he slightly sugarcoats is that interaction, but his actors give level-headed, sincere portraits of youngsters whose value systems have been turned on their head: Vice is virtue and love perverse. They are still, in some ways, children, susceptible to the blandishments of adults and gullible about the facts of their lives. Even if they do survive, how will they ever free themselves from these distortions?
Leslie: Gillian Jacobs
Donnie: Evan Ross
Alex: Tom Arnold
Michael: John Malkovich
Young Leslie: Ryan Simpkins
Young Donnie: Jermaine Scooter Smith
Frank: Kevin Zegers
Screenwriter-director: Damian Harris; Producers: Pascal Franchot, R.D. Robb; Executive producers: Mark Amin, Todd Olsson; Director of photography: Paula Huidobro; Production designer: Bradd Fillman; Music: Craig Richey; Costume designer: Rhona Meyers; Editor: Michael Shemesh.