Well-meaning but terminally dull, the docudrama Holly takes on the underage-prostitution trade in southeast Asia, with the same white-man-confronts-Third-World-problems approach as movies like Blood Diamond and The Constant Gardener. It’s part of a nonprofit initiative to raise awareness of the sex trade, which includes two other films (both documentaries) and a charitable organization. And as admirable as the project’s intentions may be, the movie always plays like a tool of an activist campaign rather than an engaging narrative.
Filmed partially in the actual red-light district of Cambodian city Phnom Penh, Holly does have a certain gritty realism, and the handheld camera and oversaturated colors recall the on-the-ground style of Fernando Meirelles (who directed The Constant Gardener as well as City of God). But that style still can’t make the story, about a jaded American expatriate (Livingston) whose compassion is awakened by the titular child prostitute (Nguyen), any less rote and superficial. A degenerate gambler, drunk and dealer in stolen goods, Livingston’s Patrick stumbles across Holly when his motorbike breaks down and he needs somewhere to stay. Almost cartoonishly pure of heart despite his nasty habits, Patrick goes to extraordinary lengths to save this one girl, even as thousands of others are exploited every day.
Ledoyen shows up as a French aid worker to offer some helpful statistics that the audience can take note of, but she’s far from being an actual character. Livingston, who’s best at playing unassuming everyman roles, underplays both Patrick’s despondency and his doggedness, and the result is a character who’s more plot device than person. Holly, too, is there more to illustrate the horrors of the underage sex trade than to develop as a human being. And nearly everyone else—from corrupt officials to Patrick’s callous business partner to Udo Kier’s slimy pedophile—is one-dimensionally evil.
Patrick’s chaste devotion to Holly eventually becomes sort of creepy in its single-mindedness, probably not a consequence that the filmmakers intended. The movie doesn’t bother exploring anything like moral ambiguity, though. At one point, Ledoyen’s aid worker shows up to deliver a pamphlet with the slogan, “Sex with children is a crime.” It tells you about as much as the movie does, and accomplishes it a lot more efficiently.
Ron Livingston, Thuy Nguyen, Virginie Ledoyen
Directed by Guy Moshe