The kids aren’t all right

‘Trade’ launches a shock-and-awe campaign on human sex-trafficking.

Sara Nicole Miller

In the American mind, the world sex-trafficking industry conjures up images of Eastern bloc mafias, young girls lured by dreams of nanny jobs in Paris, and young Thai children holed up in a grimy Bangkok bordello. Sex slavery, or so it seems, happens a world away.

“Trade”

Starring: Kevin Kline, Cesar Ramos, Paulina Gaitan
Directed by: Marco Kreuzpaintner
Rated: R
Playing at: Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis, (612) 825-6006

But this past summer, when a string of brothel raids took place in our own backyard – local operations which, according to police, used sex slavery and were connected with international sex rings – our society has been forced to accept that horrors of the skin trade occur right under our noses.

But this is America – the land of milk, honey and denial. And because the entertainment industry, more than any other source, determines the American public’s crisis du jour, it’s no wonder the proverbial route into the hearts and minds of Americans happens through the cinema, however misguided, exploitative or lackluster the stories.

“Trade,” a film by director Marco Kreuzpaintner, is one of those lackluster stories. It makes a half-hearted (yet nonetheless disturbing) attempt to chronicle the underbelly of the global sex industry, as seen through a caravan of slaves’ journey into the American sex market.

And “Trade,” fortunately or unfortunately, pulls out themes from a New York Times article in 2004 by Peter Landesman titled “The Girls Next Door.” In the article, Landesman weaves an intricate web of the ferocious and crude global skin trade, highlighting personal accounts and often dingy and grotesque realities.

Only in “Trade,” screenwriter Jose Rivera applies a thick coating of Hollywood’s own one-size-fits-all narrative, pasting together a sensationalist and potentially xenophobic reassemblage of Landesman’s oft-disturbing reporting.

The film begins in Mexico City, a place that has gained notoriety as a main trafficking hub on Mexico’s “Via Lactea” – or “Milky Way” – referring to the route from southern Mexico to the United States border, often traveled by illicit sex-slave caravans. Through the film’s looking glass, Mexico City is a dangerous and twisted place: The cops are crooked, girls vanish while riding pink bicycles, and the kidnapped are corralled through the murk of a crowded marketplace, within feet of other people but too fearful to make a move.

“Trade” opens as a 13-year-old Mexican girl named Adriana (Paulina Gaitan) is kidnapped by Russian traffickers. The rest of the film follows her shoddy, terrifying trip from a back street in Mexico City, across the border into America and to a sleepy house in suburban New Jersey, where her virginity is sold on an online international auction block to the highest bidder.

Upon hearing of her kidnapping, Adriana’s older brother Jorge (Cesar Ramos) follows the illicit caravan to Juarez, where he finds an unlikely comrade in a Texas cop (Kevin Kline) who’s searching for his own daughter. Together, they venture into America’s belly of the beast: truck stops filled with roadside perverts, online pedophile rooms in Jersey, skimming a world that seethes beneath the apple-pie American surface, barely recognized by the public at large (or the institutions that govern it).

It gets worse. There’s the disturbing scenes, and then there’s the really disturbing scenes, like the one in which Adriana’s popcorn trafficker brings her to a corn field. The field, where crops have been removed to create makeshift trick-turning spaces, is full of truckers and local men having their way with the children. In one area, a group of 10-ish girls (all donning white communion dresses) huddle together. Dirty dolls lay abandoned in the mud. The scene is stomach-turning.

In all fairness, the gritty perils of sex trafficking would be difficult for even a seasoned filmmaker to depict. The film must be impactful, but not obscene; it should illuminate the issue without exploiting it. And sure enough, “Trade” manages to do both; often at the same time. Moreover, it’s uncertain whether the film is contributing to awareness about sex slavery or throwing into the wind another jingoist, odd-couple road-trip narrative.

And in Hollywood’s world of sex trafficking, where all the victims are beautiful, doll-faced girls and their subjugation becomes romanticized through a doe-eyed victim role and a drawn-out, nihilistic rape scene, “Trade” offers up little more than a rosy-cheeked world of quasi-tragedy.