I have seen my fair share of movies in my relatively short lifespan. Considering the "average" moviegoer sees something like five films a year at the cinema (or however many it is) and I'm seeing five this weekend alone, I think it's a fair assumption that that is true. I have liked a lot of the movies I have seen, loved a lot of them too. I've also disliked a lot, hated a few. Of the ones I didn't care for I have had issues with them for a multitude of reasons whether it be poor writing, inept directing, bad acting, silly camera choices or any number of possible issues one person could have about a film. However, I come to Damian Harris' Gardens of the Night and it is, surely, the first time I have ever been negative towards a film due to the lead actresses hair. And yet, I do. Oh sure, the film has some pluses to it's credit, but also other minuses, but... but... the hair!
I'll get to that in a moment.
Gardens of the Night is an, at times, quite harrowing film. It is split into two defining halves, the first dealing with the abduction and subsequent prostitution of a 7-year-old girl Leslie (well played Ryan Simpkins) and her new friend Donny (Jermaine Scooter Smith) by two evil men (Tom Arnold and Kevin Zegers). It's tough stuff, folks, but thankfully Harris didn't use arthouse cinema's de rigueur go-to tricks of the trade like handheld camera, natural light and intense closeups. The films looks gorgeous, and reminded me of Mysterious Skin in the way it contrasted it's physical beauty to the ugly issue of child abuse.
However, the first half of the film is ended by a daft scene involving police - what policemen would raid a possible child abuser's home and not have anybody at the back gate, I ask?! - and it's all downhill from there as we promptly cut to ten years later where Leslie and Donnie (now played by Gillian Jacobs and Evan Ross respectively) are asleep under a lifeguard post at the beach. No explanation of what went "down", but I can forgive it. The next scene is key, however, as we see these two homeless teenagers enter a public bathroom and wash themselves using paper towels. How is it key? Well, yeah, that's where my issue with the hair comes in.
As we quickly learn, Leslie and Donnie are homeless prostitutes routinely sleeping under bridges, in parks, on beaches and the like. Leslie takes drugs and is a chain smoker of epic proportions. I can't tell you how long she's been a homeless drug using chain smoking prostitute with no access to a shower but she has absolutely beautiful skin and hair. Her face is perfectly blemish free and her legs are waxed and tanned like a star's. She has a beautiful long and luxurious set of curly hair on top of her hair, although it does occasionally become straight within a blink of the eye. Her nails are manicured and her clothes are the type that you could imagine Lindsay Lohan sporting to a film premiere. Donnie has a pimple in one scene, other than that he looks quite well groomed too.
It was at this moment that the movie lost me. It's nice to know that their stunning Californian looks haven't suffered at the hands of fate that had been dealt. In their early scenes under the capture of Arnold and Zeggers they routinely eat fast food too. Leslie is quite simply the prettiest and healthiest looking prostitute I've ever seen, and there isn't even a brief mention of STDs, which even the most amateurish film of this nature mentions. Joke all you will about actors "deglamming" to win an Oscar, but I'd rather than than have them taking roles such as this and looking like a Hollywood "it girl" stepping out for a night on the town.
As the films goes on from this moment it drifts about between storylines including one about a young girl at a youth centre (Carlie Westerman, the little girl from Me & You & Everyone We Know fyi) and the discovery of Leslie's parents. There's also the silliest transexual I've ever seen in a film. It is the part about Leslie's parents though that makes me think the film could have been so much more, as even after not doing near enough to deserve them, the film got me to shed a few tears in the tender, albeit too brief, final moments.
To compare it back again to Mysterious Skin - one of the finest films of the decade so far if you ask me - then the film comes up incredibly short. A topic as big and deeply affecting as all this doesn't deserve to be undermined by such silliness, but it is. The opening half worked so hard towards what it was aiming for that the second half feels even more infuriating that it already is, which is just plain disappointment of the highest order. C
Glenn saw Gardens of the Night as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival and would love to hear from you if you saw this or any other films at the fest.