Vital Topic Sold Short by Weak Story

Have you ever thought much about the plight of children who are abducted to supply the demand generated by our society’s obsession with sex? Here’s some startling statistics:

  • 85 to 90% of all missing persons reported to police are juveniles
  • A recent U.S. Department of Justice report noted that 797,500 children younger than 18 were reported missing in a one-year period
  • In the United States, it is estimated that 1 in every 8 boys and 1 in every 4 girls will be sexually exploited or abused before reaching adulthood
  • In 2005, local police classified about 16,897 cases of missing children as “endangered,” meaning the children were thought to be in the custody of a dangerous adult
  • About 10,000 cases a year remain unsolved

Cesar Ramos as Jorge in Trade

Sobering, isn’t it? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you think the problem is bad here, try going to Asia, or south of our border. The sex trade, everywhere, caters to the whims of affluent Westerners—a significant chunk of them Americans. If you have enough cash to pay, you can get just about anything, even girls gone wild. The truth of the matter is, a lot of what happens in Vegas—and so many other cities—not only doesn’t stay there, it doesn’t start there, either. It often starts in places like Juarez, and ends in places as mundane as New Jersey suburbs. It soils everyone who touches it to six degrees of separation, and taints every corner of a country that tolerates it.

Trade is the story of a handful of children and teens whose captivity begins in Mexico City. At the center of the tale is Adriana, a young girl from the barrio who thinks her mom is too protective. When her brother Jorge buys her a bike for her birthday, she takes a clandestine and forbidden ride—and winds up snatched. She ends up in the company of several other girls (and a boy) destined for an online auction in the U.S. Prices will range from $15,000 to $45,000.

When Jorge learns, via his local Mexican mafia connections, the truth of what has happened to his sister, he steals a friend’s car and chases the human traders and their cargo to Juarez. From there, the trail gets complicated, as the group has to make multiple attempts to cross illegally into the U.S. But with the help of Ray, a customs officer who’s on the trail of the gang for reasons of his own, Jorge gets back on the trail (sort of) and finally manages to get to New Jersey just in time for the auction. There, Jorge and Ray are stymied by local law enforcement officers who have conflicting priorities, and aren’t particularly interested in the fate of a single Mexican girl. Thus, it’s left to the unlikely partnership of illegal alien and cop to concoct their own plan for Adriana’s rescue.

The film is based on real facts, researched by and reported in The New York Times. Those facts are important, and it’s commendable that the film highlights them in a brutally honest fashion. It’s worth knowing that otherwise decent people cooperate with ruthless thugs in the sex trade because the money is so good. It’s disturbing, certainly—in the way that harsh realities are—to understand that there are way-stations on the underground prison railroad where average citizens causally barter for their ten minutes of sexual mastery over powerless juveniles. And if it comes as any surprise that the house down on the end of your block, which looks like the home of a pretty prosperous businessman, could be harboring a cell block of sex slaves—well, wake up. This is one of the most shameful sides of America. It’s no exaggeration, and it’s no joke.

It’s clear, too, that the sex trade is an important topic for all those involved in the film, in spite of the project’s shoestring budget. Kevin Kline plays Ray; Roland Emmerich produces, taking a break from his normal blockbuster lineup (Stargate, The Patriot, The Day After Tomorrow); and Jose Rivera, fresh from an Oscar nomination for The Motorcycle Diaries, writes the script.

But as is often the case with a Message Movie—which this clearly is, as is any film that concludes with encouragement to act on what you now “know”—Trade forgets that Message isn’t job one, Story is. And director Marco Kreuzpaintner hasn’t been able to helm the story itself in either a compelling or a believable fashion. It’s easier to believe the facts themselves—such as the methods of sedation that the sex traffickers employ, or the idea of a man plunking down 25 grand at a truck stop for a young male sex toy—than it is to believe that Ray and his nemeses have any idea how to get to New Jersey from Texas. And that’s a huge narrative problem in any movie, much less one that so demands to be taken seriously. Perhaps there were too many cooks in this kitchen, too many people insisting on the inclusion of too many “real” moments that the “real” ones made everything else look painfully fake.

It’s a shame, too, because this film will be seen by fewer people than it should; but it would be dishonest of me to tell you that this is not only a vital subject but a good film as well.

And at this point I will mention that the statistics with which I opened with were not cribbed from Trade’s production notes. They come from notes for another film that opens a few weeks from now, Gone Baby Gone, which also touches on similar subjects—but which happens to be an excellent and more intellectually complex (and honest) film. Knowing the right thing to do about such things is never as simple as it seems; but Trade, as a Message Movie, might have been better off incarnated as a documentary.

Nonetheless, keep an eye out for Cesar Ramos, who plays Jorge, and Marco Perez, who plays the conflicted herder of captives. Both outshine Kline here by miles—and that’s saying a lot, one way or the other.

Trade is rated R for “disturbing sexual material involving minors, violence including a rape, language and some drug content.” Absolutely. But if you’re an adult, none of that is an excuse not to see this film. Avoid it if you will because it’s a so-so film; but don’t let yourself off the hook for any other reason. All of us in this country are a part of this problem, and we need to understand what we have wrought. This kind of stuff is, in great part, why so much of the world hates us.

It’s worth noting, too, that I’m not just some prude who has some repressed notions of sex that I want to foist on others. I’ve had my own fill of our nation’s pandering to porn and prostitution, and it’s all raw filth motivated by greed. I understand sex addiction, and equally understand that it’s nothing to make excuses for—and there’s no wink-wink nudge-nudge about it. It’s sick, and it’s wrong. I know of what of what I speak; and anyone who thinks even a “little porn” never hurt anybody needs an education. A mind warped is a hard thing to fix.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Greg attended a press screening of Trade.