According to the U.S. government, human trafficking is a $150 billion a year industry around the world and often involves children or minors being forced into prostitution. It’s a problem in which human beings are treated as property to be used, abused and disposed of – and it’s going on all around us, even in communities right here in the United States.
The movie “Priceless” (opening Friday October 14) aims to raise awareness about that topic and motivate viewers to help stop it. Inspired by true stories, it begins with James (Joel Smallbone), a lost soul transporting some unknown cargo across state lines in a moving truck. The job pays good money but is ‘no questions asked,’ so James has no idea what he’s carrying – until a near accident forces him off the road and he hears crying from inside the truck’s storage unit.
He discovers two young women, who later reveal themselves to be Antonia (Bianca Santos) and Maria (Amber Midthunder) from Mexico. Their father incurred a debt, and they were smuggled across the border to pay off that debt through working as a waitress and maid. Or at least, that’s what they believe.
James is kind to them, and they feel like he’s a good man. And in fact, he is. He has a beautiful young daughter named Emerson, who is currently living with his mother because he was too unstable to care for her after his wife died. He loves Emerson dearly and wants nothing more than to reunite with her, but his choices of late have prevented that from happening.
James hopes to get his life back on track when he gets paid for this job, but the situation strikes him as off when he delivers Antonia and Maria to two seedy men, named Garo (Jim Parrack) and CJ (Travis Hammer). As he watches them step into a van with several other young women, James’s conscience prompts him to look into the matter, and he discovers that he has actually played a part in trafficking two young women into forced prostitution.
After a dream in which he envisions his own daughter becoming a sex trafficking victim, James tries to rescue Antonia and Maria with the aid of a sympathetic motel owner named Dale (David Koechner), who has personal reasons for trying to stop these vile crimes.
“Priceless” is a well-intentioned movie about the sin of treating human beings as property. And being that this is a film from Christian filmmakers, the word “sin” is appropriate here, as it applies to the traffickers. While that word is never used in the script, you certainly feel that prostitution is not the victimless crime it’s often described as. There are real women involved in this work that leaves them physically, emotionally and spiritually devastated.
But it’s along those lines that the film also suffers a major flaw because we never fully see the horrific effects that being forced to work as a sex slave can have on young women. While Antonia and Maria are shown as troubled by their captivity, the only other woman in the house that viewers get to see is one who has drunk Garo’s Kool-Aid and now prepares new women to work for him. You could argue that she’s been brainwashed or beaten down by experience, but she doesn’t show the slightest hint of rebellion or genuine human concern about what’s going on. And we never get to know any of the other girls in the house to witness what this work has done to them. Perhaps the filmmakers believed they needed to present a more sanitized view of the situation for a Christian audience, but I think it would have served “Priceless” well to be more gritty, honest and realistic – not in a graphic, sexualized way, but in getting glimpses of the after-effects of doing that kind of work for a long time.
As far as the actors go, Joel Smallbone believably conveys a sense of being tortured by his past actions and a desperation to be a good man again. His struggles with faith are also handled well. When Antonia asks him if he believes in God, he replies, “I went knocking a few times, but it turns out no one was home. I leave him alone, and he leaves me alone.”
An openness to faith does eventually develop in James, thanks to Dale, played by David Koechner. And if there’s one surprise in this film, it’s Koechner. He’s best known for playing crass and brash characters like Todd Packer on “The Office” and Champ Kind in the “Anchorman” movies. But in “Priceless,” he plays it dramatic all the way through – and it works. His character could be called the philosopher of the story and, as such, some of his lines feel a little awkward. But Koechner inhabits Dale well, bringing a subtle pathos to the role.
“Priceless” tells an engaging and important story that hopes to produce real-life results that change the world for the better and helps us realize that every man, woman and child is created in the image and likeness of a God who loves them. It’s an admirable film, but it could have used some more reality to make it even more effective for a wider audience.
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