Gardens Of The Night

Gardens Of The Night


Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

Writer and director Damian Harris first started researching a film about child abduction 20 years ago. He travelled America and spent two solid years speaking to victims, parents, police, counsellors and pimps and first drafted a script in 1990. When he was finally able to finance Gardens Of The Night himself in 2006, its bleak content and unswerving tone became a testament to the harrowing real-life experiences that he unearthed and struggled to bring to light.

In contrast to films such as Gone Baby Gone, Harris chooses to show events from the perspective of the abducted. It's a bold decision that proves effective as he splits the film in two, first showing eight-year-old Leslie's kidnapping and incarceration through extended flashback. We then see her surviving as a homeless street-kid 11 years later. The basically linear narrative allows the audience to connect with Leslie as a child and fully appreciate the horrors that she endures, so developing an awful backstory for her older self.

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Ryan Simpkins (Sherrybaby) plays the younger Leslie with a creditable balance of personality, vulnerability, fear and slowly murdered innocence. It's a great performance that helps make Leslie’s drawn out ordeal and induction into the horror of child pornography and abuse a thoroughly queasy and decidedly uncomfortable watch. This is aided in no small part by Tom Arnold's staggering turn as Alex, Leslie's main abductor. He in no way elicits sympathy for his character, but rather than presenting a plain monster makes Alex rounded and believable and so all the more disturbing.

Gillian Jacobs (starring in Richard Kelly's up and coming The Box) plays the older Leslie and unfortunately is less convincing as the dead-eyed but peppy 17-year-old. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her scenes with the estimable John Malkovich, playing the manager of a drop-in shelter she visits. Whereas the other homeless kids and their low-life exploiters look and act the part, Jacobs can’t quite convince with her toned looks and make-up scruffiness.

At the heart of the film is the more persuasive portrayal of Leslie’s close relationship with Donnie, a boy also abducted by Alex. Their shared survival as children and on the streets leads to an affection and trust between them, although as deeply scarred young adults they are unable to express such raw feelings. Tragedy then looms as the older Leslie and Donnie (Evan Ross) are confronted with choices that could see them actually become more like their past tormentors than they ever thought possible. This might sound trite, but Harris’ creation of the sleazy pimp and drug world they are forced to inhabit makes such developments depressingly credible.

Harris holds Gardens Of The Night (the title taken from a Robert Bridges poem) with a mature grasp throughout and is careful to neither exploit nor glamorise his characters. He deftly attunes the film visually to the two eras of Leslie’s life. The younger Leslie’s experiences are regularly filmed from her height or eye line, often as static as the character, with a softness of light and focus at times. It conveys the sense that the child doesn’t really understand what is going on and the slightly blurred dream-like, or nightmarish, quality of childhood memories. Handheld cameras follow the older Leslie and Donnie much more often creating an on-their-wits immediacy, with hot urban sun or harsh artificial lighting scoring their reality around them.

Harris explores how our past experiences influence us as adults and shape the decisions we make, and how one person’s sense of responsibility to others is another person’s sensing an opportunity for exploitation and corruption – crystallised as an exposition of the darkest underbelly of society. It is not without its flaws, but even so was nominated for the Golden Bear in Berlin earlier this year. An important and difficult film.

Reviewed on: 06 Oct 2008
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A harrowing account of child abduction and survival.
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Director: Damian Harris

Writer: Damian Harris

Starring: Gillian Jacobs, John Malkovich, Ryan Simpkins, Tom Arnold, Kevin Zegers, Jermaine Scooter Smith, Harold Perrineau, Jeremy Sisto, Raynold Gideon, Cornelia Guest, Natalie May

Year: 2007

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: US, UK


Raindance 2008

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