I'm debating whether or not to do a teensy little spoiler of the new Christian film "Priceless." The marketing for the film readily gives this juicy tidbit away, but on the other hand, it would be effective if those who come to the theater know nothing. But on the other hand, who goes to a movie not knowing the first thing about it? But on the other hand (wait--that's three hands), this is a review, and I must divulge the subject of the film: human trafficking. The title, of course, is apt. It's a line of dialogue as well as a prominent theme in the film. Human beings are priceless.
The human beings trafficked here are women: two sisters, one underage, who have been duped into believing they are being hired for legitimate jobs in the USA. Our main character, James, a trucker down on his luck (deceased wife, adored six-year-old daughter taken from him by Social Services), unknowingly transports human cargo, making "deliveries" of the locked trucks he shuttles. How could he not know? The women may have been told to be absolutely silent by their handler (whom they think is helping them), as they eat, sleep and presumably defecate in the roomy holding cell on wheels.
BASED ON "TRUE STORIES"
"Priceless" is based on a true story--how true these characters and their actions are is not specified, but we know that what we are seeing is, tragically, exactly what happens to countless individuals: duped, trapped and enslaved in various ways from various countries, including the USA itself. The two young women here are being forced into sexual slavery (prostitution). As the story unfolds, the truth of what he has been hauling and his complicity begins to haunt James and he wants to "make things right." Reversing the damage will not be so easy, and in the end will require him to put his life on the line. James was "once a good man," now in need of redemption himself. He teams up with Dale, an older man who won't say why the women's plight means so much to him (but we can guess right off the bat).
The exposition is gradual and creative, but the palpable danger could have been heightened exponentially in the hands of the right director. Actually, this could have been a tremendous film in the hands of the right director. All the components are there! As I have pointed out before in my reviews, movies like "Priceless" suffer from the same "Christian film" malaise: a hesitance to really go for it. To be a little more gritty. And to employ all the bells and whistles in today's filmmaking toolkit. Much of the acting was superb ("James" was just fair, and camera conscious, IMHO)--the two women and the pimp in particular were outstanding (with some outstanding "gritty" scenes), but the incredibly slow Southern pace and preaching bouts mar the story.
What's great about this film is, first of all, tackling this subject matter to raise awareness. For those completely ignorant of how trafficking works, it paints a realistic portrait. Also, there is so much emphasis on human dignity, with some great accompanying dialogue, I would think that anyone who has been abused in any way, women who have let themselves be used (there's a scene with a prostitute who is doing this by "choice"), will be schooled in their worth, as well as see screen examples of good men who honor women. Men who have ever participated in or facilitated prostitution in any way will be given pause, as the character of these kind of men is on full display, and the question implied is: It's not the women that are "cheap"--are these men worth anything? "Priceless" is a love letter to women everywhere.
BREAKING DRAMATIC TENSION
Often in this kind of indie film (Christian or otherwise), there are good sequences and scenes and a coherent story, but it winds up feeling episodic because the action doesn't flow due to a lack of attention to transitions, and thus the dramatic tension is broken over and over. "Priceless" also suffers from several on-the-nose voiceover and "reflection" scenes ("Now here's what's going on spiritually, folks!") which could have been worked into the action itself. I might add here that "Hotel Rwanda" suffered egregiously from this constant breaking of dramatic tension that left us not feeling apprehensive at all--like there was no slaughter going on right outside the walls. For a much better feature film on Rwanda, see "Beyond These Gates." But I digress.
There is one huge "save-the-day" coincidence toward the end (coincidences are a no-no in film in general, and never allowed at the end).
There is heroism on the part of Antonia, the older of the two sisters, and she is the one who introduces God into the picture. In spite of her suffering, she has faith while James does not. The Godtalk is cogent, strong and believable coming from the lips of a Mexican woman and a cowboy-hatted gent, but it doesn't feel like they're really talking to each other, but proselytizing us, the audience. Maybe that can't be helped in filmmaking today where we are so used to God being verboten. Movie Godtalk can make even us believers cynical (because He sticks out like a sore thumb when you're not used to Him being there)!
There are no easy solutions to the dilemma of rescuing both women. Don't look for neat endings and quick conversions! But ultimately, the film really does "go there" when we see what it takes to deal with the ruthless who have no respect for human life.
--This film is in the same vein, ilk and pace of the following "Christian films": "October Baby," "Mom's Night Out," "Old Fashioned" (the first and last of which I found a lot of good stuff in). I don't put the Kendrick Brothers' films here because they are a cut above.
--Am I being extra-harsh on "Christian" films? No. It's just that poor or uneven production values in a film are completely distracting from the "good bits" (as the British say). Movies need to entice you to suspend disbelief, to "just go with it" because we know we're in good hands and won't be continuously jarred and have to work incredibly hard to keep suspending disbelief, to give the film "another chance," to sit back, relax and be given a vicarious experience. Uneven quality filmmaking keeps "taking us out of the film": a mortal sin in my Screenwriting studies at UCLA.
--Thanks to the filmmakers for raising awareness of this egregious and pressing issue.