What do you say about the movie that’s said all it has felt to say about it’s message, one that supersedes its story? Message movies seem to always run this risk, as the narrative stretches beyond the expression behind the author’s intent, the message seems to conquer the material, and a general sense of How fascinating… moving on settles in.
Gardens of the Night is no different- an often lacerating, difficult drama about the horrors of child prostitution, it overstays it’s welcome and never comes across as anything other than uncomfortable, painstaking recreation of illicit acts and lost childhood, stuff that carries inexorable weight in real life but cinematically feels like a b-story.
Young Leslie, viewed in a gorgeous, digital video sunshine, is a young pre-schooler walking home when she is coaxed into a car by a sweating, suspect-looking type. She is then whisked away to a barely-seen shady world of child porn and nauseating hooking. In between uneasy moments of underaged flesh peddling, she befriends another wayward boy as they both provide services for a series of increasingly medium-to-high-profile actors.
As the narrative cuts ahead, we rejoin the two, their relationship with reality now frayed by a vanished childhood. As teens, they try to make do as hustlers on the fringe of San Francisco, trying to survive drug addictions and a criminal underground looking to swallow them up.
The dry, almost artless approach combined with the seemingly arbitrary storytelling raises questions of author intent- we only get a glimpse of this world, framed through establishing shots meant to hide what ugliness exists outside of the frame. The tastefulness of tastelessness, which in itself might be considered tasteless by some- imagine Salo if it were only reaction and background shots. The moments where we’re meant to be in the shoes of the protagonists don’t serve any story purpose, as there’s no real story- we spend just enough time with the young characters before an arbitrary jump forward, though these characters have spent their entire time being reactionary that it’s impossible to see any of them in their older versions.
The cast is mostly capable of doing the heavy lifting, though one wonders, Why bother? The conundrum- sexual abuse has turned these characters into emotional blank slates. Cinematic it is not, but the narrative doesn’t feature any strong points to latch on to, at least as arrested as it’s too-late-arriving theme, about the loss and recovery of the popular concept of home. Gillian Jacobs captures the little-girl-lost innocence of the girl, though in all fairness, part of her inability to connect in several scenes is because, even as 17 year olds, she and co-lead Evan Ross are a good ten years older than the characters they are playing. Also appearing are a who’s-who of veteran character actors- face time for Jeremy Sisto, Harold Perrineau, Kevin Zegers, and even John Malkovich, who, when playing a normal human being as he does here, usually seems like the alien from Men In Black with the ill-fitting human skin.
Acquitting himself in the most memorable manner is Tom Arnold, as the man who turns Leslie into a life of prostitution. Sweaty, hulking and unfailingly sincere, he’s a more dangerous pedophile in that he honestly cares for the kids in his own way. He’s a fully-realized monster, a towering presence who’s character overshadows the narrative long after time passes and he exits. And we’re just getting to know the criminal- he sees the two children in his care as the beginning of a bigger service, as if he’s building a little league team through kiddie free agency. It’s a story with a strong moral contradiction- pedo as doting parent- and would have been less inert than this string of Oh, how terrible’s.