"Holly," an Unseasonably Sobering Drama

Dennis Harvey November 28, 2007

U.S.-Cambodian co-production “Holly” makes a real virtue of being low-key in tone, but you might wish it would make a little more noise getting into theatres. It started shooting in late 2004, began playing festivals in the summer of last year, and is finally arriving here with so little fanfare that there were no press screenings or announcements — just hand-addressed DVDs mailed to a few local critics, without even a note saying when/if the film was opening. A recipe for failure? Yep.

Still, that can’t be entirely the distributor’s fault. (In fact, the filmmakers seem to be self-distributing, and are no doubt trying to make as much noise as possible with slim resources.) Clearly major labels passed on this movie, which is the kind of gritty, serious, sobering drama that has a hard enough time drawing American audiences even when it’s got a big movie star to sell (i.e., “A Mighty Heart.”) “Holly” might easily have gone straight to DVD in the U.S., which would be a pity. It’s well worth rushing to the theatre for….this week, cuz you can’t bet it won’t be hanging around too long. It’s not exactly a winning date-movie project, unless you and yours find the phrase “child sex-slavery trafficking” compels attention more than it repulses.

Which is something “Holly” achieves — compelling sympathy and interest in a sordid subject without cleaning it up.

Or succumbing to manipulative melodrama, as did the similarly-themed recent U.S. feature “Trade” with Kevin Kline.

Ron Livingston plays Patrick, a Yank drifting around Southeast Asia. He’s the kind of expat who seems to be here against his will, or as self-punishment. While we never find out just what secrets his past holds, there’s something in Patrick’s eyes that tell you he can’t go home again. Surviving on card-table gambling, not seeming to care whether his fortunes sink or rise, he’s solicited in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh by Bangkok-based smuggler Freddie (the late Chris Penn) to transport stolen artifacts across the border.

When his motorcycle breaks down in a “red light village,” he meets the improbably named Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl sold to a brothel here by her family. She doesn’t blame them — they were simply too poor to feed all their children — but she isn’t being particularly cooperative, either, clashing with the madam who’ll sell her virginity to the highest bidder.

Patrick is attracted to the stubborn, bright girl — but not in the way everyone assumes, particularly Claus (Udo Kier), a leering older German on a permanent sex holiday. (If the two men’s scenes crackle with tension, it may be in part because Livingston and Kier reportedly loathed each other.) At least the women he uses aren’t children anymore. Claus snorts, enraging Patrick. Latter hopes to “save” Holly — a task that will prove messy, possibly doomed, and complicated even by the girl herself, who can’t understand that her new benefactor doesn’t want to “boom-boom” or “yum-yum” with her. Even a sympathetic French social worker (Virginie Ledoyen) advises him to give up. She estimates there are some 37,000 child prostitutes in Cambodia alone — he won’t alter the system by rescuing just one. In fact, to do so he may have to abet it.

The temptation with a pitch-dark subject like this is to deal in moral absolutes. “Holly’s” great strength is its air of pervasive ambiguity and compromise. Patrick’s quest may or may not prove redemptive — for himself as much as Holly — but he’s still a haunted, doubting character, while a life has long since stripped this hardened “little girl” of childhood “innocence.”

Shot in moody, grainy tones by Yaron Orbach, director Guy Moshe and his co-scenarist Guy Jacobson’s first feature refuses to pull strings, but ends up intensely involving nonetheless. Its approach is crystalized in Livingston’s performance, which is so internalized it might have looked insert on the set. Under the camera’s typically close-up gaze, however, he makes Patrick’s conflicting impulses as itchily tangible as a mosquito bite.