Gardens of the Night
Running time 110 minutes
Written and directed by Damian Harris
Starring Gillian Jacobs, Evan Ross, Tom Arnold
Riding in on the crest of praise from assorted international film festivals, Gardens of the Night is another newfangled kind of horror movie, unsuitable for Halloween. No vampires here, and no slice-and-dice gore from the Saw franchise, either. The monsters are all people, as ordinary-looking as movie critics, but twice as lethal. This is a dossier on the ramifications of child abuse that leave perfect children emotionally destroyed for the rest of their lives. It is hard to watch, but worth every sobering moment because of the things you learn about one of life’s most grueling subjects.
Leslie (played by rueful Gillian Jacobs, a fearless actress who is going places) is a 17-year-old prostitute living on the streets of San Diego, protected by her only friend, Donnie (Evan Ross), as they scrounge for food by selling their bodies, sleep on sand dunes and park benches, and live from one drug to the next in a dead-end existence of hopeless futility. The movie shows how they got that way. At 8, Leslie slipped over to the dark side from an affluent home in a picture postcard neighborhood in Pennsylvania when an affable pedophile (a different kind of warts-and-all Tom Arnold) offers her a ride home from school, convincing her that her parents have been called away on an emergency. He even gives her a cell phone number to reach her dad, but of course it rings and never answers. Serving milk and cookies, leading the children in their prayers, buying them new clothes and planting doubts in their minds that their parents no longer want them, pedophiles use this strategy to trick children, convince them they’ve been abandoned and work to build dependence and trust. Gradually that trust erodes into depravity, as the men who prey on their new wards rape and even sell them to pimps and pornographers. While telling a specific story, the film also catalogs the lurid facts behind the faces you see on milk cartons.
Nine years later, Leslie and her fellow captive Donnie, who have literally raised each other, are broken teenagers, washing in gas station toilets, scoring tricks in truck stops and always on the move. Their childhoods are gone, their faces are mirrors of ravage and time. Leslie is one of the lost and missing who does try to move out of the midnight blur into the restorative rays of daylight. She saves the life of a 12-year-old runaway she’s been hired to turn into a prostitute; she seeks help in a rescue shelter for homeless teenagers; and she tries to kick the drug habit. But every step forward is followed by two steps backward. By the time a social worker reunites her with the long-suffering parents she believes to be dead, it’s too late. Sometimes these kids are too far gone to ever go home again. Normal is no longer a word in their lexicon.
Good acting and sincere direction by Damian Harris act as beacons to light the haunting corridors of an underworld spook house. I’m sure Tom Arnold did the movie as a public service gesture. In a different kind of role from his usual bumbling roughhouse buffoonery, he is chilling, riveting in a creepy sort of way—as good-old-boy jovial as police reports describe über-psyco John Wayne Gacy (the serial killer with dozens of corpses in his cellar who was beloved as the neighborhood clown). And the kids who play his victims are awesome. Last year there was Trade, a grim look at child slavery that nobody went to see. I fear Gardens of the Night will meet the same box office fate. This is a shame, because it teaches you many things. Every year 300,000 children become victims of baby prostitution rings. Their average age is 14. One out of three girls and one in seven boys are sexually abused before they reach adulthood. Fifty-eight thousand kids are abducted yearly. And 1.3 million children live on the streets of major cities without supervision, with one-third victims of prostitution and kiddie pornography. Welcome to the world we live in, but there are other statistics about the masses of people who find some facts too grotesque to face. These are the people who will fail to benefit from the honesty and courage of Gardens of the Night. I recommend it reluctantly.