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God, but this is a hard film to watch. Libby Spears' Playground is a thorough and gut-wrenching examination of the child sex trade--how it works, and how it harms. It is an emotional film, but it looks at the problem through clear eyes and with sharp focus. The executive producers are Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, and his producing partner Grant Heslov, a fact that I mention because, in putting their names on a film like this, they're doing the best thing you can do with the reputations they've attained. Plainly put, I saw the film because their names were on it. I might not have otherwise, but I'm glad I did. Playground is like a kick in the head.
Spears begins with a brief summary of the international sex trade; we all think of predators traveling to Thailand or Cambodia to have sex with children, preferring to put it in the box of issues that we can't control, things unfortunately in the hands of less civilized societies. But it's not an off-shore problem, as Spears' film makes painfully clear; there is a horrifying child prostitution problem right here on our streets.
The picture is cannily constructed. Spears focuses on one particular case, an 11-year-old Oregon girl named Michelle who was discovered turning tricks in Vancouver. The daughter of an addict, Michelle had been in and out of countless foster homes and was one of those kids who just got "lost in the system." Her story made international headlines, but after she was returned to another foster home, she disappeared again. Spears and her crew, with the help of the appropriate agencies, try to find her, providing an ingenious arc for the film's duration.
Within that construct, other stories are told. We meet a young girl in jail for prostitution; she relates that she was raped by two men the week previous as if she's ordering a sandwich, and when her indifference is questioned, she casually explains that after all she's been through, being raped isn't a big deal. We meet Nina, now 22, who relates how she lost her virginity to the man who would be her pimp when she was 13--"I still had my school uniform on at the time." And one of the film's many police witnesses tells the harrowing story of a girl whose mother prostituted her to over 150 men for drug money.
Along the way, related issues are explored. Plenty of valuable points are raised about the flaws of the sex offender registry programs. The notion that only the children of lower-income families are victimized is disabused. And, in the film's most squirm-inducing section, the supply and demand of child pornography is dissected. Some of the topic-to-topic transitions are a little clumsy, but we're ultimately grateful that the films is willing to go so many dark places.
Spears tells the tale with a wealth of interviews, both with witnesses and experts, as well as startling statistics and (in what sounds like a trite gimmick, but isn't) haunting animations by Yoshimoto Nara. Not all of her devices work; the shots of empty, badly chipped Playground equipment, for example, feel like exactly what they are--a heavy-handed piece of symbolism in a film that's powerful enough with it. And while some of the cultural criticisms are valid, others are painting with a pretty broad brush. While the film's profile of a sex offender is valuable and insightful, the film is generally more successful at explaining how these things happen, rather than why. (One minor technical complaint: there's some very bad sound in a couple of key interviews, including one very important one late in the film. In that one, flawless audio recording clearly wasn't an option, but subtitles should have been employed--I literally don't know what was said there.)
"We all failed her," says Michelle's social worker. That may very well be the case. We certainly leave Playground feeling that, in many ways, she didn't have a chance--particularly in grasping how this industry works, and how easily its clients can attain their desires. I won't reveal what becomes of Michelle, except to say that the final piece of information about her just knocks the wind out of you. That goes for the movie, too.
Jason lives in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU.