Holly is the name of a feisty 12-year-old-girl who toils in the red-light district of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Into her life stumbles Patrick (Ron Livingston), an American drifter who, stranded in this village noted for under-age prostitutes, finds himself at first repulsed but then inextricably drawn into Holly’s plight. They begin a wary friendship which leads to Holly’s offering of herself to him, but he really only wants to rescue her from her hellish life.
In Holly, co-writer/director Guy Moshe presents a grittily realistic picture of a very unpretty world, drawing you into the horror of Holly’s situation, as well as Patrick’s newly idealistic purpose. It’s a realm of dragon-lady madams, brutal thugs who embody the notion of “Human life is cheap,” and depraved foreign tourists, personified by rapacious German Klaus, played our old friend, the ever-reliably pervy Udo Kier, who offers Patrick some cynical counseling and, like everyone else, mistakes his platonic relationship with Holly for something carnal. As is usual in this milieu, a mordant gallows’ humor is also present in the atmosphere. Holly’s attempts at escape are both compelling and harrowing—and heartbreaking, in their inevitable failure.
Moshe is truly blessed by the blossom-faced Thuy Nguyen—14 years old when she played Holly—who is a natural, graceful and fully alive camera presence, with a steely fortitude that you feel will see her through far more than any help from any concerned Caucasians. She has an affecting chemistry with Livingston, doing the updated, disheveled Bogart soldier-of-fortune thing. He’s good, and darkly handsome, as usual, but Patrick has been made rather too much of a paragon. I mean, the man’s in the most notorious red-light district in Cambodia, and he refuses any gratis offer of sexual service from some of the more age-appropriate, undeniably comely inhabitants? This is where his Bogart shtick veers into saintly Gary Cooper-Jimmy Stewart pillar-of-boring-rectitude territory and you feel things are a bit too loaded. All Patrick seems to want to do is nobly drink himself into oblivion and play cards.
Virginie Ledoyen pops up as an angelic, concerned social worker who runs a home for saved child prostitutes, but here again, you have to wonder how she and all of her co-workers seem to have stepped out of Central Pretty French Starlet Casting. In his inescapably wistful final screen appearance, Chris Penn plays Patrick’s shady-dealing buddy, and his presence adds to the general—undoubtedly fully intended—melancholia of the entire enterprise.