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(2007) *** R
114 min. Slow Hand Releasing.

It's a tradition at the movies to take a "Third World" issue (or simply an issue of primary concern to anyone non-white) and dramatize it with a white protagonist. This longstanding and oft-hoary tradition usually compromises a story for the purpose of making it more accessible to a Western, white audience.

Earlier this year, the film Trade pulled this trick with Kevin Kline above the title, but failed to win hearts and minds through its dramatization of the horrors of the sex trade. Holly, from filmmaker Guy Moshe, is a much more effective look at the same issue, but its lower-key style and lack of publicity make it even less likely to score with audiences: a shame, that, since Moshe and co-screenwriter Guy Jacobson use their white protagonist not cynically to exploit white guilt, but to excavate it and examine its possibilities and failings with an anthropological eye.

Ron Livingston plays Patrick, an American expat in Cambodia. Though he's a compromised character from the start, there's something in the man that's he's obviously tried to suppress. When he makes the mistake of looking a 12-year-old Vietnamese prostitute in the eyes, he finds himself rapt with the task of saving the girl, a stubborn diamond in the rough named Holly (sharply realized by Thuy Nguyen). Whether or not Holly can be saved, there's a feeling of futility in facing the deeply ingrained sex trade, which swallows tens of thousands of innocents every year.

As one observer tells Patrick, "There's crime and there's crime. These people already have a reservation for hell." As Sartre noted in No Exit, "hell is other people," and Patrick's unacknowledged sexual dark side continually emerges in how others see him and in how he judges others. Though he's constantly propositioned, Patrick never accepts a sexual offer; nevertheless, in attempting to save Holly, he frequently feels the sting of people looking at him as if he is a john. Patrick's judgements against a well-to-do, regular patron (Udo Kier) come back to haunt him—doth he protest too much?

Ton That Tiet's score is artfully unsettling, and the location photography of Cambodia lends a verisimilitude, a documentary grounding, to the film's more didactic moments. Most of those moments belong to Virginie Ledoyen's social worker, but her character necessarily delivers a reality check to counter Patrick's dangerously naive idealism. In his final role (as a black marketeer), Chris Penn tellingly slurs his words, but nevertheless gives sturdy support to Livingston. Ultimately, Holly puts the lie to the notion of the "Third" world—it's all one world, and the work of curing what ails it requires not quick fixes but patient indomitability.

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