A ne’er-do-well American drifter tries to save a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl sold as a Phnom Penh prostitute in capable social issue pic “Holly.” Though treading a firm, clear-eyed line between education and exploitation, the well-acted and technically proficient drama — too chaste to scandalize, too dark for general audiences — works as a mobilizing tool for its cause, but is iffy for all save specialized playdates and ancillary biz.
A card shark going from scheme to scheme in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, American hustler Patrick (Ron Livingston) is enlisted by cynical, Bangkok-based crime boss Freddie (Chris Penn, in one of his last performances) to move stolen artifacts across the border. The job’s barely underway when Patrick’s motorcycle breaks down in the notorious K11 red light village. Stuck there overnight, he’s educated on the nature of the place by dissolute attorney Claus (Udo Kier), who summarizes Man’s basic urges by explaining that in the company of the brothel’s women, “I never felt so close to heaven.”
Patrick’s revulsion turns to idealism when he befriends 12-year-old Holly (newcomer Thuy Nguyen), sold by her Vietnamese family into the sex trade and highly prized for her intact virginity. He discovers a clever, stubborn girl beneath the traumatized exterior and becomes determined to save her — though their strictly platonic relationship is misinterpreted by almost everyone they meet.
But between Holly’s instinctual contrariness and Patrick’s blatant violation of the unwritten rules of organized vice, the deck’s stacked against them. As a rudderless cad transformed by a righteous indignation he didn’t know he possessed, Livingston’s increasingly anguished perf reps the pic’s heart and soul.
Newcomer Thuy Nguyen, only 14 during production, holds her own with natural aplomb. Penn and Kier provide dependably pungent support, though French star Virginie Ledoyen is underutilized in a sparse part that requires her to pop up at key moments to recite the heartbreakingly bleak statistics of child prostitution in the region.
Nevertheless, credit debuting helmer Guy Moshe for not only marshaling these disparate acting styles into a cohesive whole, but in laying out the fundamental contradictions of relief efforts — to save Holly, Patrick must buy her, thus supporting the bad guys — in a film that never stoops to sensationalism or skin to make its heartfelt points.
Tech package is handsome, led by Yaron Orbach’s crisp widescreen lensing and Ton-that Tiet’s atmospheric score. Co-producer and co-writer Guy Jacobson is a New York lawyer who formed the K11 Project, a charitable foundation, after being propositioned by young girls during a 2002 trip to Phnom Penh. Pic is the first of three on their announced slate, to be followed by docus “The Virgin Harvest,” on the issue of child trafficking, and “The K11 Journey,” chronicling the filmmakers’ adventures. Per Moshe, Penn completed last ADR work six months prior to his January 2006 death.