This film is so many things, but above all a labor of love. It's about a subject that is upsetting, disturbing, horrifying, and really happening all over our world. Evil is real and evil does not care who it hurts or destroys. Child sexual abuse and exploitation are horrible, destructive crimes that needs to be addressed. I thank Damian Harris for this film, a beautiful portrait of the children who are being destroyed by this evil, and a wake-up call for anyone who cares to open their ears. It leaves you wishing you knew how to stop the evil and help the children. It left me very upset and angry and saddened.
Aesthetically, it is superbly filmed, beautifully acted, directed, and written. It has all the earmarks of any favorite to have made it to Oscar night, but it got the short shrift somehow. Tom Arnold deserves an Oscar for his work as Alex. Unfortunately, pedophiles and rapists and pornographers do not wear black hoods and capes. They look like everyone, and this particular man, while we know him as the story's villain who sets the stage for evil and degradation, is very human. You see his pathetic side even as he drugs the children and films himself having sex with them. Evil isn't black and shadowy. Evil is a friendly face asking you to help find their dog.
I was also very moved and impressed by the performances of Kevin Zegers (mostly in deleted scenes on the DVD!!!) as Alex's cohort, very possibly an older victim of Alex's, and Ryan Simpkins and Jermaine Scooter Smith as Leslie and Donnie, the young children who are exploited. To escape their nightmarish world of being raped by strangers in front of a camera, making videos that will surely be passed around in the perverts' underworld, the two children begin reading from Rudyard Kipling's THE JUNGLE BOOK, and creating a world that they don't have to share with anyone.
But unlike many of the critiques I have read, I was even MORE moved by the performances of Evan Ross and Gillian Jacobs as the same children years later. Their damage is evident without being melodramatic. Their bond, part romantic, part familial, is touching without resorting to sentiment. Jacobs' performance has been criticized, and her appearance described as "too pretty" to be a street person. However, if you pay attention to her eyes, in some scenes sad and soft, in others, hard-edged and "old", you see the whole horrible story. Part I of the story is about the damage being inflicted, and that's important, but Part II is important as well, as it is about what these children become after someone has used them and tossed them away like rubbish.
I believe the most important segment of the film is when the scum-bag pimp asks Leslie to help him get his hands on a 12 year old girl staying in a children's' shelter. Has the evil destroyed Leslie so totally that she will do the very same evil deeds as the men who victimized her? Also in the cast are John Malkovich as a strict but caring counselor in the shelter, Jeremy Sisto as a pornographer/pimp who supplies children to affluent pedophiles, Kyle Gallner as a male prostitute, and Harold Perrineau as one of those kind of pedophiles you've heard arguing that "sex with children is natural, wholesome, good..." Anything to avoid admitting their sick, destructive perversion.
There comes a time when Leslie is told that her parents did not give her away, that they have been searching for her for years. The ending is sad and leaves you almost in tears. Her original family is no longer her "family". They are simply strangers. It's such a heartbreak to realize that she cannot ever feel at home with them ever again, that her life with them has been altered forever.
Her one true friend, Donnie, is out there somewhere, the only one she will ever feel "family" about. I was hoping that in the end, we'd see them reunited, but who knows what happened to either of them.
This is definitely not a feel good movie, but it is a very beautiful story and film. You may not be able to watch it more than once, but anyone who has a child ought to at least do so.
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