Holly is not a seasonal comedy about the red-berried Christmas plant, but a drama about the child-sex trade in Vietnam and Cambodia. Not a feel-good flick by any means, it's nonetheless worth your time—and not because it points out that sex with children is bad (one hopes you kinda knew that already). No, what gives Holly its strength is that it's a well-told story that doesn't belabor the point with cheap music cues or David Fincher-esque grungy sets. Rather, it presents itself matter-of-factly, in authentic locations that have a surprising beauty belying the darkness of the work at hand.
Instead of beginning with some kind of informative text crawl or location information, Holly literally cuts directly to the chase—a young girl in pajamas running through the streets of a town, pursued by nasty-looking thugs. The pacing is so intense you know there's jeopardy afoot. The girl—whom we'll later come to know as Holly, played by then-14-year-old Garden Grove native Thuy Nguyen—is caught, thrown back into the colorful prison that is her room at a brothel, and told she'll be killed if she runs away again. This is evidently not her first escape attempt.
Meanwhile, an American card hustler named Patrick (Office Space's Ron Livingston), exiled in Cambodia due to an unspecified event back home 15 years earlier, is finding himself in some increasingly tight spots with angry cheaters, but he gets bailed out of one such incident by a former colleague, Freddie (the late Chris Penn, filling in for a drug-addled Tom Sizemore). Both have been in the business of finding and selling stolen artifacts, but you'd never know that just by watching the movie—I only know because it says so in the press notes.
Anyway, it seems Patrick goes back to work for Freddie—again, much story vagueness on this point, probably because theft isn't the issue the filmmakers care about—but arbitrarily decides to take a motorcycle out for a spin and promptly runs out of gas. Too bad the nearest station has rather arbitrary options. "No gas. Gas later," says the attendant. "You go beers. Two hours later, come gas."
But as Patrick chills at a nearby café, it becomes clear he's in brothel territory. Specifically, the Svay Pak district outside Phnom Penh, infamous for sex tourism. (The actual area was cleaned up in 2004, shortly before Holly began principal photography, and the locations are real.) And he's stuck for more than two hours—the motorcycle tank has sprung a leak and can't be fixed until morning. The brothels are the only option for accommodation, and he might just be the first Westerner there to request a room with no girl. For creepy contrast, we get an appearance by Udo Kier, who's easily believable as a sexual deviant, though slightly less convincing as one interested in females.
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Encountering Holly, Patrick is taken by her stubbornness in the face of all the abuse she's subjected to by her fellow girls. After his bike is fixed, he decides, belatedly, that he needs to save her from the life. But by that time, she's been re-sold and has her own plans of escape.
With the prevalence on the art-house circuit of directors such as Larry Clark, who seem determined to make underage sex into a gloriously artful thing, Guy Moshe's direction here is refreshing in its honesty. He may shoot his locations artfully—director of photography Yaron Orbach saturates the colors to make you feel the heat and the surface-level exotica of Southeast Asia—but there's no finessing the depravity underneath it all, nor is it dramatically overplayed. Much of what we see is from Holly's point of view: through wooden slats in her room or other captive venues. And when Patrick is approached by 5-year-old children who proclaim they're not old enough to "boom-boom," but want to "yum-yum" him, it's easy to imagine how another director might have felt the need to switch to slo-mo and cue the violins. Moshe just trusts the moment to play out naturally, almost exactly the way it really happened to producer/screenwriter Guy Jacobson.
Holly is being called "part of the K-11 project, dedicated to raising awareness," which makes it sound more like a civics lecture than it is. There are no easy answers or clean resolutions here; it's suggested onscreen that even the meager solutions in place are at least partially wrong-headed. It's also suggested, by this writer, that Guy Moshe is a director to watch.
Holly was directed by Guy Moshe; Written by Guy Jacobson and Moshe. Opens Fri. at Regal Garden Grove; Edwards Westminster; Edwards Long Beach Stadium.