Gardens of the Night tackles the unimaginable, and in many ways the unfilmable nightmare of a child abducted, then raised under the devastating guise of her kidnappers. In an attempt to complicate and in many ways re-focus the attention on character and away from the intrinsically awful scenario, director Damian Harris injects a sense of magical realism into the narrative, momentary glimpses of imagination, light, and color amidst a consisntelty dark and foreboding mise-en-scene, aesthetic choices that illuminate the childhood innocence surrounded by evil.
At times, the film is too much to bare, especially in the first half where young Leslie, who’s been manuipulated into thinking her parents have abandoned her by Alex (Tom Arnold), begins to look inward to avoid the obscene and horrifying reality around her. A young boy named Donnie, also a hostage of Alex, becomes Leslie’s key ally, a relationship that connects a flash forward of eight years, the children now homeless teens depending on each other for survival. Their kidnappers are long gone, but Leslie and Donnie still drift through life with the presence of abuse draped around their sagging shoulders.
Harris uses cyclical victimization as the film’s most potent thematic structure, pitting Leslie against a local pimp who asks her to lure an unsuspecting girl out of a homeless shelter for his own gain. The film consistently struggles with the idea that once taken, a person can never truly go back to their previous reality, a stark and sometimes overly depressing idea. However, as the last shot conveys, Leslie chooses the life she knows and depends on over one last fleeting attempt to please someone else.