The final image in Trade of Innocents, a dramatic thriller about child trafficking and prostitution in Cambodia, doesn’t feature a reunited family, a victimized child, or have anything to do with the plot of the film. It shows Justice-Generation’s web address, where viewers can go for information about how to fight child trafficking. All of which is to say that the film is as much a piece of social-justice campaigning as it is a work unto itself, an important fact to remember when considering its many flaws.
The film follows Alex Becker (Dermot Mulroney), a human trafficking investigator committed to ridding Siem Reap, Cambodia of any brothel that serves the needs of pedophiles. His determination, we soon find out, comes partly from having had his own seven-year-old daughter kidnapped and killed years earlier, an event both he and his wife, Claire (Mira Sorvino), have yet to work through.
Trade of Innocents suffers from drawbacks you might expect in a movie that explicitly calls for the audience to act afterward. Every metaphor is unpacked and clarified, every villain instantly recognizable as such because of his sleazy demeanor—though if brothel owners and their customers really do talk about children with the euphemisms heard in the movie, then that can be added on to the mile-high list of what makes the practice horrific. The dialogue often seems taken directly from talking points. “This is about changing the fear equation,” Alex tells the local police captain, who’s skeptical reply is by now an anti-American cliché: “You Americans love to fight a war that cannot be won.” Meanwhile, the actors, given little to work with admittedly, do the material no favors with performances that shift from overblown to stilted depending on the scene.
Trade of Innocents, though, clearly has intentions beyond artfulness. Sorvino is Goodwill Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking for the United Nations. Writer-director Christopher Bessette developed the film with producers Bill and Laurie Bolthouse after the three were made aware of the child prostitution problem by a Cambodian anti-trafficking organization. And the film has already screened as part of a symposium on trafficking held at Yale Law School. It aims, in part at least, to win over future activists; unfortunately, there’s little to recommend it beyond that practical purpose.
And even then, the film isn’t necessarily the best product for the task. It makes you aware of the problem, and it may inspire you to read more about it. Those are noble intentions, but, realistically, there are less time-consuming ways for audiences to reach the same end.