Set in aCambodian red-light zone, “Holly” aims high but fares middling as it presents us with a sex-trafficked preteen and a morally awakened gambler who navigates treacherous, sordid terrain in order to rescue her. First-time feature filmmaker Guy Moshe has dramatized this potentially problematic material as an appropriately gritty yet never sleazy mix of stolen-childhood tragedy and personal-transformation uplift. But he doesn’t deliver the hard-hitting, seriously affecting drama that his title character, and other such kids everywhere, deserve.
Stuck, due to motorcycle trouble, in Phnom Penh’s K-11 district, turf of pedophiles and sex tourists, Patrick (Ron Livingston), an expatriate American card player who works for stolen-goods marketeers, meets Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year-old virgin sold into the child-prostitution trade by her family. A look into the eyes of this spirited but frightened girl stirs Patrick from his stagnation, and he determines to free Holly from those who enslave her. But he underestimates the difficulty of this mission.
Oozing good intentions, the film has enough going for it to warrant a matinee ticket. Filmed in Cambodia, it feels authentic, and, unlike the recent “Trade,” it depicts the horrors of child prostitution non-luridly. While it can’t quite overcome the problems inherent in a story about a Westerner playing savior in a foreign land, it contains enough realistic elements — glimpses of brothel kids who look about 6 years old; an untidy ending — to remain credible. Livingston and Nguyen click as their characters share camaraderie sparks.
But as various forms of escape, pursuit, capture, bonding and betrayal occur, the drama doesn’t display the overt juice or the inner intensity necessary to transcend being merely watchable, and Moshe and cowriter Guy Jacobson don’t compellingly convey the tragedy of predicaments like Holly’s or explore the emotional force that drives the formerly deadened Patrick.
The characters also suffer from the lack of a back story that might enhance our perception of them, and the other girls in the brothel are presented one-dimensionally. Contrast this with the documentary “Born Into Brothels,” in which the kids’ accounts of family life and personal dreams result in an enlightening and a moving full picture.
The solid but sketchily used supporting cast includes the late Chris Penn as Patrick’s black-market boss, Udo Kier as a pedophilic tourist, and Virginie Ledoyen as an aid worker who spouts factoids designed to inform us of the scope of child-trafficking, and turns the film into a social-studies lesson.
Starring Ron Livingston, Thuy Nguyen, Chris Penn, Virginie Ledoyen
Written by Guy Jacobson, Guy Moshe
Directed by Guy Moshe
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes