Monday, March 30, 2009

Brace Yourself: Damian Harris' jolting GARDENS OF THE NIGHT comes to DVD

The missing kids whose faces appear on milk cartons finally get a movie that does them justice: Damian Harris' difficult and encompassing GARDENS OF THE NIGHT. It could be uglier, more bloody, nasty and vile; it could paint an even bleaker picture of the life of a kidnapped child. No matter. What's here is good enough to qualify as uncomfortably real and consequently give most caring parents pause.
Is the movie exploitative? No. It keeps threatening to be, but then any film with this subject matter skirts exploitation. Instead, it presents a nearly point-by-point plan on how to proceed with a child abduction (this is scary and chastening enough), but then by forcing the viewer to see things from either the kidnappers' or the young child's perspective for nearly half the film, Gardens succeeds where others in this genre fail.

By beginning in the present, teenage world of the protagonists, then going back to the abduction, then back again into the present -- and onward -- the film comes full circle in terms of character development. Thus the sudden outburst of physical self-hatred from the teenage Donnie (a fine performance by Evan Ross, shown left, with Gillian Jacobs, in the second photo from top) seems at once shocking and truthful. There is good work from all the actors here -- especially Ryan Simpkins and Ms Jacobs (also shown in poster, top) as the young and older versions of the kidnap victim, John Malkovich (below) as a counselor, Jeremy Sisto as a high-level predator and Harold Perrineau as a low-level john. The standout (again, just as he was in Don Roos' Happy Endings) is Tom Arnold (above). What a brave actor this is. Forget all that stuff about "Ooooh, isn't it brave when a straight actor plays gay?" Essaying a child predator and doing it this well -- nuanced, human, sad, ugly, real and despicable -- is something else.

Writer/director Harris (son of Richard: he dedicates his film to R.H.) still has lots to learn about moviemaking (this film is perhaps ten times better than the dreadful Mercy he adapted back in 2000). Yet he has put together -- out of sincerity, skill, research, talent and probably some good luck (good casting, too) -- a movie that should stand the test of time. More than anything else, it speaks to the fact that, after a decade of growing up as a kidnap victim, any kind of return to "normal" life is chancy indeed. Victimization recreates victimization, even after "freedom" has occurred. In fact, this film made me understand, as have few others, what life on the street might be like. And how, for children who go there and stay awhile, the street defines their sense of normality like nothing else.

Gardens of the Night has just appeared on DVD this week, after making the festival rounds and garnering a very small NYC theatrical release last fall. Reviews were mixed. It's not an easy watch (except, I suppose, for some of our snarky, "sophisticated" younger critics), but it's a worthwhile one. Brace yourself.

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