There’s a certain lurid fascination at play in Gardens of the Night, Damian Harris’s fictional account of the abduction and sexual abuse of an eight-year-old girl. Ostensibly an exposé of the very real problem of sex slavery and its lifelong consequences for its victims, the film, despite Harris’s tasteful elisions of potentially graphic depictions, plays more like a borderline exploitation film, with its young lead, Ryan Simpkins, continually placed in harm’s way. Harris may play coy with explicit provocation, but he strings the viewer along with a series of suggestive details and unsavory situations that everywhere maintain grim interest and invite a certain voyeuristic complicity in the audience.
Split into two sections that take place a decade apart (and which link up through some particularly ham-fisted rhyming effects), the film starts with the abduction of young Leslie (Simpkins) as she walks to school down a sunny suburban street. Stopped by a middle-aged man, Alex (a smarmy Tom Arnold), who claims he needs help finding his lost dog, Leslie makes the mistake of getting into his car. The first time, he simply drops her off at school, but when she gets in a second time, he drives her off for a years-long imprisonment. Cultivating an avuncular image that stands in marked contrast with the expected outward monstrosity of the child abuser, Alex treats the young girl with a veneer of tender solicitude, usurping the role of caretaker from her parents who, he tells her, no longer want her. And, the film suggests, he may actually feel a certain concern for his victim, but of course not enough to refrain from selling her off as a sex slave. And so pretty soon the purple details begin to pile up: Leslie’s left alone in a hotel room with a potential rapist who tells her “there’s nothing wrong with touching” until Alex shows up to shoot him dead; a judge who rents out the young girl’s services forces her to bathe and then tells her to put on a pink ballerina outfit; and throughout Harris plays up the innocence of the poor victim by intercutting her sordid adventures with readings from the Disney version of The Jungle Book which echo in Simpkins’s frail voice across the soundtrack.
The second section cuts forward 10 years to find Leslie a homeless coke-sniffing prostitute in San Diego and adapts a similarly rough-hewn aesthetic, Harris scrapping the fixed compositions of the first part for jittery hand-held camerawork and punk music that supposedly reflect the heroine’s newfound lifestyle. While less sensational—and less compelling—than the film’s earlier section, this section too provides its share of lurid events, chronicling the dubious means by which 12-year-olds are seduced into the world of prostitution and giving Leslie (here played by Gillian Jacobs) a close-up monologue in which she rehearses her foul-mouthed bedroom patter.
But Harris has a point here and he makes sure we don’t miss it: Not only do abused children often grow up into just such a debased lifestyle but the two situations themselves generally follow the same patterns. When Leslie convinces a young charge to become a hooker, she quotes verbatim the speech that Alex had given to her years before (and in case we missed the point, Harris helpfully flashes back). Then the filmmaker repeats ad nauseam the motif of the bath that had signaled the beginning of Leslie’s time in captivity and serves a similar purpose in announcing the initiation her young protégé. By the time the filmmaker gives us a close-up of a faucet for what feels like the 12th time, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve gotten the point already.
Gardens of the Night leaves me wondering if it is finally possible to make a non-exploitative portrait of sexual abuse. There will always be a fascination associated with acts so far beyond the scope of the everyday, so unimaginable to the general populace that when people have a chance to hear about them they can’t turn away. The responsibility of the filmmaker in documenting these acts is to effect the nearly unachievable task of simultaneously making people aware of these horrible situations and honoring the victims by keeping their travails from becoming the stuff of cheap melodrama. That Harris was unable to achieve both these ends is not really surprising. He may lack both the sensitivity and the filmmaking chops to achieve the balance, but his effort remains a bold and ambitious, if finally unsuccessful, attempt to trace an entire cycle of abuse.