It’s a sign something’s not quite working when the statistics in a film’s closing credits about child abductions, underage prostitution and kiddie porn prove more disturbing than the fictionalized story that precedes them. So it goes with “Gardens of the Night,” Brit writer-helmer Damian Harris’ well-meaning but underachieving drama that shows how a girl abducted at 8 years old and forced into prostitution becomes a dead-eyed streetwalker at 17. Low-budget downer features strong perfs, especially from the younger cast and Tom Arnold, but cliches undermine its effectiveness. “Gardens” will best flourish at further fests and through niche distribution.
Opening with an off-the-peg screenwriting maneuver, the action begins with homeless teen prostitute Leslie (Gillian Jacobs, “Choke”) spinning a tale to a youth-shelter worker (John Malkovich) about how she went into the care of an “uncle” after her parents supposedly died when she was a preteen.
In fact, an extended flashback shows she was abducted off the streets of Wilmington, Pa., by sleazoids Alex (Arnold, playing off his genial persona in a piece of genius casting) and Frank (Kevin Zegers, “Transamerica”). Locked in a squalid suburban room, young Leslie (Ryan Simpkins, excellent) and Donnie (Jermaine “Scooter” Smith), a black boy about her age, are repeatedly drugged and forced to make porn movies with Alex and Frank.
Later, she and Donnie are pimped out to clients by Jimmy (Jeremy Sisto), who, like Alex, claims he’s not interested in abusing children himself. A subsequent flashback suggests Alex at least is lying, a spot-on detail that illustrates writer-helmer Harris’ research into pimp psychology (Harris spent 10 years interviewing victims, their parents and perpetrators in preparation for filming.).
The fact that Harris (who helmed “The Rachel Papers” and lesbo-shocker “Mercy”) gets such details right makes it all the more frustrating when the film missteps with trite motifs such as bathtub scenes, cutaway shots of clenched little hands and children’s drawings that overmilk the drama, as well as an oh-so-ironic voiceover of young Leslie reading Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”
Nevertheless, awareness that this monstrous cruelty really happens adds a powerful urgency. While, thankfully for the sake of the young thesps, no actual abuse is shown, a knockout scene where Leslie is almost raped by her first client (Harold Perrineau) condenses all the horror the story needs. Arguably more chilling are the scenes where Alex, speaking with a gentle parental voice, strokes Leslie’s hair, likening the pain she’s going through (i.e., becoming a whore) to that of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.
Second half of the film, which follows the now-grown Leslie and Donnie (Evan Ross) around the red-light zones and drug dens of San Diego, lacks the same impact, although, again, the milieu evoked has the right ring of veracity. Well-chosen non-source soundtrack choices by neo-punk and indie bands such as Neurosis, San Diego locals Gogogo Airheart and indie-movie favorites Broken Social Scene add punch.
Lead Jacobs is good enough to create empathy for the colder, teenage Leslie, but unfortunately looks about five years too old for the part and is way too well-groomed and clear-complexioned to make a convincing smackhead. It’s Arnold who steals the show.
Elsewhere, craft contributions are slickly pro, with nubbly, multitextured lensing on digital and Super 8 by Paula Huidobro and canny sound design by Ryan Kaiser repping standout elements.
Pic may have trouble getting distribution in Blighty, given its parallels with the headline story of missing English 4-year-old Madeleine McCann, which has already backburned release of the similarly themed “Gone Baby Gone.”