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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘Holly’ is not “just a movie”

“It’s just a movie.” We movie critics here that a lot, usually when we’re being exhorted to relax, turn our brains off, stop overthinking things, and simply enjoy ourselves.

But sometimes a movie isn’t just a movie, and isn’t intended merely for our entertainment. That’s obvious, sometimes, when we’re talking about activist documentaries like two out at the moment — Lake of Fire, about the heated controversy over abortion in America, and Darfur Now, about the genocide ongoing in Sudan in Africa — or Michael Moore’s couldn’t-be-higher-profile tirade Sicko.
It’s not so obvious, at first glance, when it comes to a movie like Holly, opening in limited release this Friday. You might be misled, for instance, if you know that it stars Ron Livingston, whose highest profile roles have been in much lighter fare like Sex and the City on TV and, of course, movies such as the cult fave Office Space and the romantic comedy Little Black Book. But there’s nothing light here, not much you can “simply” “enjoy” in this quietly horrifying movie, a fictional story about child prostitutes in Cambodia that is based on very real, very shocking reality.

Livingston plays Patrick, an American abroad in Cambodia, a slightly shady guy who’s been running from himself for years but finds a new kind of purpose when he meets Holly, a 12-year-old prostitute he imagines he can rescue. He’s not a john — he’s got problems, but he’s not screwed up like all the many, many Western men who travel halfway around the world so they can pay to have sex with children. Which is the absolute truth of the situation: kids as young as five sold into sexual slavery by their desperately poor parents. One impossiby sad — and all too real — scene in the film depicts kids barely out of toddlerhood (“babies,” an appalled Patrick calls them) soliciting men for blowjobs.

I spoke to one of Holly’s producers, Adi Erzoni, recently, and she told me terrifying tales about the production of the film, which took place in Cambodia and, as often as possible, in actual locations, such as a former child brothel in a town once notorious as a destination for “sex tourists,” as these wealthy international predators are sometimes called. The town has since been shut down, but all that did was move the business elsewhere — it’s too profitable for too many people. As Erzoni learned, the hard way: the Holly crew was harassed and threatened by the local mafia, with the full support of the Cambodian government, which detained Erzoni in the country for weeks, refusing to let her leave, purely as an intimidation tactic.

Later, Ron Livingston talked a bit with me about working in Cambodia. “The only Westerners that seem to be there — besides the backpackers that are there for a couple of weeks — are either there to prey upon the chaos or to try fix the chaos.”

Holly is definitely in the “fix the chaos” category. As a film, it’s “entertaining” in that it’s compelling and compulsively watchable — the suspense of Holly’s plight and Patrick’s self-imposed obligation to help her are intense. But whatever it’s worth as diversion, it’s far more vital for its consciousness-raising potential… if those who look to the movies as an opportunity to turn their brains offs leave them on, just this once.

Learn more about the film and about the issues involved at the official Holly Web site.

[More from my interview with Ron Livingston is here.]

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