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Child prostitution is too gamy a subject to be treated frequently in American movies, yet there’s nothing very surprising in Holly, an account of an American drifter who tries to rescue a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl from a Cambodian brothel. The most unexpected thing about director and co-writer Guy Moshe’s low-budget docudrama is that it’s pretty good. Less contrived and sentimental than this year’s Trade, in which Kevin Kline helped a Mexican youth pursue his kidnapped sister to New Jersey, Holly persuasively renders the heat and humidity—actual and metaphorical—of Southeast Asia.

Disaffected émigré Patrick (Ron Livingston) usually makes what little money he needs playing cards, although in his introductory scene he requires the help of his scurrilous old friend Freddy (one of the final roles of the late Chris Penn). Patrick starts delivering mysterious packets for Freddy, who’s some kind of smuggler. Stuck overnight in a small town after his motorbike stalls, Patrick takes a room in a hotel that’s primarily a whorehouse. There he meets Holly (Vietnamese-American Thuy Nguyen), who was recently sold by her parents, as well as a German sex tourist with scruples: Klaus (the eminently creepy Udo Kier) insists he doesn’t touch prepubescent girls. Holly is almost old enough for Klaus, but still a virgin. When Patrick decides to redeem her, the girl is more concerned about her younger sister, still at home but potentially on the market soon. Yet even if he can buy Holly before she’s corrupted, Patrick is told, the purchase will just drive up the price for other girls.

That warning comes from Marie, a French social worker who initially assumes that Patrick’s a pederast. A thankless job for the versatile Virginie Ledoyen, the role of Marie exists to counter Patrick’s bad-boy romanticism and deliver the script’s hard facts and sociological truths. “As long as it’s not tragic, it’s happy,” says Marie of Holly’s circumscribed future. But that sort of pragmatic resolution is not where Holly—or the film named for her—is headed.

Unsurprisingly, this movie was made as part of a multifilm project that also includes a documentary about Phnom Penh’s sex district. Holly has a strong sense of place, thanks to authentic locations and Yaron Orbach’s cinematography, whose colors are so saturated they seem damp. Yet the filmmakers don’t rely entirely on genuine Third World ambience. The movie is tightly edited, with some highly effective transitions, and its tensions are accentuated by Ton-that Thiet’s score, whose severe juxtapositions are closer to Penderecki than to commonplace soundtrack pap. His jarring music is central to Holly’s ability to balance existential melodrama and social-problem tract, telling a story that raises consciousness yet doesn’t inflate hope.