Gardens of the Night is a 2008 drama film, starring Gillian Jacobs, John Malkovich, Ryan Simpkins and Tom Arnold; and directed and written by Damian Harris.
At the age of eight, a young girl named Leslie (Ryan Simpkins) is kidnapped by Alex (Tom Arnold) and Frank (Kevin Zegers). Alex tricks her into helping him find his dog Trixie, then takes her to school; during the ride, he pretends that her father is his boss, thus earning her trust. After school, Alex and Frank find her again; they lure her into their car with a story about her dad being in trouble. Then they drug her and take her to their house. Alex tells her that her parents do not want her anymore. As proof, he provides a phone number to her "father's cell phone" which in reality is a pay phone. After several unanswered calls, she eventually accepts his story.
She and another victim, a young boy named Donny (Evan Ross) are forced into prostitution and child pornography. Alex is very protective and fatherly to them, which adds to her confusion. Their clientele include men in positions of authority, such as a court judge, and they are told that they are lucky to be with such good and honorable men. As a coping mechanism, Donny and Leslie pretend they are in an imaginary world based on the stories of Mowgli and the Jungle Book. One day, Leslie goes to a convenience store, where it becomes apparent that her parents are looking for her, because her picture is on milk cartons. Leslie doesn't see the cartons, thus preserving her notion that her parents don't want her. While Alex is paying for ice cream, the store owner's wife recognizes her as missing and calls the police. When the police show up at Alex and Frank's house, the two kidnappers hastily escape with the children.
The story picks up about 8 years later, with Leslie (Gillian Jacobs) and Donny (Evan Ross) together, living a hand to mouth existence. Leslie is prostituting herself, and as a way to move away from this, she tries to lure a young teen living in a shelter into a prostitution ring. Donny has fallen in love with her, but Leslie is very confused because while she loves and cares for him, he has always acted as a brother and companion to her, and never as a lover. She goes to the shelter in an attempt to win the girl's trust and turn her out as a prostitute, but at the last minute she has a change of heart and returns the girl to the shelter. The counselor (John Malkovich) discovers her true identity and tells her that her parents have been looking for her all these years, which she finally realizes is true.
Leslie reunites with her parents and attempts to return home. However, she is too scarred and ashamed after a decade on the street, and cannot remain in such a normal atmosphere. She leaves in the middle of the night and hitchhikes to Florida, hoping to re-unite with Donny.
Max Van Ville
Jim Cody Williams
The film was first screened at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2008, where it was nominated for, but did not win the Golden Bear Award.
The film was then released in the UK and France in October 2008, and in November 2008 was given limited release in New York City. As of December, it has not yet had a nationwide release in the United States.
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 58% as of December 2008. With 12 reviews counted, seven are "Fresh", or positive, and five are "Rotten" or negative.
A review in The New York Times states, "Recovery time is recommended after seeing Gardens of the Night, a harrowing, obliquely told story of kidnapping and forced child prostitution that conjures a world entirely populated by predators and prey."
A review in the New York Observer calls the film "another newfangled kind of horror movie", going on to say, "It is hard to watch, but worth every sobering moment because of the things you learn about one of life's most grueling subjects."
Tom Arnold's performance was praised by many critics including Leslie Felperin of Variety who said "Tom Arnold steals the show".
Gardens of the Night won the International Critics Jury award at the 2008 Deauville Festival of American Film.,
He also won the "Coup de Coeur" of the International Competition and the CinéFemme Award in Mons's International Love Film Festival
The film won the 2008 Audience Award at the Lyon Film festival (Lyfe/ Hors-Ecran).
Prism Awards: Nominated: Best Feature Film (Mental Health)