Despite being released with a batch of holiday movies, Holly has nothing to do with shiny green leaves and festive red berries. Set in Phnom Penh's red light district, where human interactions are commercial transactions, director Guy Moshe's feature debut is an earnest and audacious example of activist filmmaking.

Patrick (Ron Livingston), an American expat aimlessly drifting from one poker game to the next, sees the child sex trade in Cambodia as an entrenched evil, part of a cycle of poverty and dependence. He explains to his enigmatic boss Freddie (the late great Chris Penn) that he's learned to avoid making eye contact with the children selling trinkets or themselves. That is, until he encounters Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl living in a low-rent brothel.

Sold into prostitution by her parents, Holly's being kept in seclusion by a madam who wants to make at least $1,000 by selling her virginity. When Patrick meets Holly, he calls her stubborn, and it's true: Well-aware of the future that awaits her, she's resilient and resourceful, always looking for a way out without really understanding just how much the deck is stacked against her.

There are shades of Louis Malle's Pretty Baby (1978) in the chaste but charged friendship that develops between Patrick and Holly, and it's clear that he makes for an unlikely savior. But that's the leap of faith Holly takes — that this self-centered man would upend his life to change the course of someone else's.

Co-screenwriters Moshe and Guy Jacobson let Marie (Virginie Ledoyen), who runs the AFESIP NGO — a shelter and rehab center aiding victims of human trafficking — function as the voice of reason, outlining why Patrick's individual actions may do more harm than good. Overall, they effectively use Patrick's awakening social consciousness to outline the pernicious nature of the sex trade, and manage to get their point across without explicit sexual scenes.

Despite a few clunky plot twists — including some convenient but highly improbable chance encounters — Holly rises above the usual preachy exposé. Much of this is achieved by the way it's filmed: intimate widescreen images in sweat-soaked color combined with the immediacy of hand-held camerawork.

In standout scenes — Patrick watches the vibrant life aboard riverboats on the Mekong, Holly carefully retraces her steps in a minefield — the filmmakers beautifully capture the slippery nature of his existence, and her tenuous grip on hope.

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Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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