"Gardens" a compelling child-abuse drama

Tue Feb 12, 2008 4:49am EST
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By Kirk Honeycutt

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.   Continued...

<p>Gillian Jacobs poses during a photocall to present the film 'Gardens of the night' running in the competition at the 58th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February 9, 2008. REUTERS/Johannes Eisele</p>