HOLLY, will take you on a 113 minute, harrowing journey, through the streets of Cambodia and into the brothels of Phnom Penh, where much of the filming actually takes place. This film project is a (very) slow-paced, character driven drama, exploring human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children, and, disgustingly, how the Red-Light-District has evolved into a planned vacation stop, for many American and European men, who rationalize their behaviors as being culturally acceptable. It appears that, what happens in Cambodia, stays in Cambodia.
And, indeed, selling children into sexual slavery IS culturally acceptable in Cambodia, becoming almost a right-of-passage for some young girls---a way to help their impoverished family; to stave off hunger. They hold no malice toward those who have profited, only grief of separation. In essence, they have been groomed for this role.
Holly (Thuy Nguyen) meets such a fate, as a 12 year old Vietnamese girl, purchased, and smuggled, over the border into Cambodia. She is beautiful, bright and head-strong. But her free-will is quickly ruled into submission, when threatened that lack of compliance, will result in the purchase of her baby sister. She is willing to accept her plight, to protect her sibling. As a young, virginal girl, she sits in the brothel, while the Madame bides her time, waiting for the highest bidder---one who will pay well for bragging rights of being---the first.
Patrick (Ron Livingston), an American expatriate, has been residing in Cambodia, inking a living gambling and doing some courier work for Bangkok gangster, Freddie (Chris Penn). He is a self-loathing oaf, lacking ambition and comes across as emotionally sterile. His character deftly establishes him as the antihero figure. He appears to have disregard for the Cambodian sex trade, until the day he stops and looks into the eyes of Holly. They develop a friendship and Patrick realizes that rescuing her might put him on the path of personal redemption. They embark on a perilous journey together.
Thuy Nguyen gives the best performance, as Holly. You will connect strongly with her character. Ron Livingston's performance lacks some credibility and is somewhat contrived. He is much too naive to have lived in Cambodia as long as indicated. There also needed to be more back-story to develop his character further---to explain the emptiness he was trying to rectify. Chris Penn gives a credible performance, in this, his last film. And, the character that will fill you with loathing is portrayed by, Udop Kier, the lecherous, European Attorney, who vividly depicts 'the typical vacationer' that keeps the business growing.
This film was produced specifically to bring light to the atrocity of sex trafficking, and, there is a certain amount of stomach-churning realism delivered. However, for me, it played out superficially. It was as though the filmmakers, themselves, couldn't commit to revealing the depth of the horrors surrounding this heart-wrenching business. The message could have been delivered with much more of a galvanizing effect, through a well delivered documentary, instead of this relatively low budget film. However, that said, this film is still deserving of attention, because it will pull at your heartstrings, while filling you with rage.
This film also suffered from inadequate closure. It left me suspended in a deep, hauntingly sad, and powerless void. Although it has been strongly supported by non-profit organizations campaigning against human trafficking, remedies to the problems appear few. Even the children's advocate in the movie appeared defeated. She stated that there are approximately 30,000 children sex slaves in Cambodia, and the numbers are growing---that buying one child out of slavery is not productive---that it just makes one an enabler. So what are the answers? The reality is, that there are thousands of families avoiding starvation by selling one, or more of their children and it is a socially acceptable practice. The poverty is unlikely to end; the exploitation is destined to continue. We are left to silently grieve for the Holly's of Cambodia, as well as all children, throughout the world, facing such abuses.