The gears of conventional narrative grind too loudly in Megan Griffiths’ Eden, a fiction about sex slavery in America that occupies an awkward space between exposé and thriller. On the one hand, the film makes a scrupulous effort to take viewers inside an illicit operation and show how it functions, with insight into the ways young women are manipulated and strong-armed into compliance and smaller details like how sessions are coded and booked. On the other, it follows the deeply conventional path of a three-act thriller, which weakens the verisimilitude, especially in a final stretch that gooses the audience into rooting for its courageous heroine to wriggle out of a grim present and short future. For as studiously as Griffiths avoids cheap exploitation, the film has an overall structure that isn’t as far removed from a Roger Corman “women in prison” movie as it appears.
In a strong, thoughtful performance, Jamie Chung stars as a 19-year-old Korean-American who works the register at her parents’ shop in New Mexico and usually comes home well before curfew. One night, however, she and a friend fake their way into a bar, where Chung meets a charming serviceman and accepts a ride home from him at the end of the night. Next thing she knows, she’s in the trunk of a car, peeling down the freeway in the dust-choked outlands of Las Vegas before getting dumped in a large storage facility with a couple dozen other young women. Under the firm hand of a corrupt federal marshal (Beau Bridges) and a temperamental, crack-addicted handler (Matt O’Leary), Chung submits to an agonizing trade, but with a quiet resilience that she reserves for the right moment.
Griffiths and her screenwriter, Rick Phillips Jr., manage the tricky business of evoking the specific horrors of sex slavery without languishing in the lurid and graphic. Eden excels at collecting keen observations about the job, like the fact that Chung’s real age is much older than average (her braces made her seem younger), or that she adopts a soft-talking “Chinese” persona with johns. Griffiths also draws O’Leary more sensitively than expected, painting him less as a vicious thug than a raging addict who uses drugs to numb his conscience as much as his body. But there comes a point when Chung has to leverage some power in a seemingly hopeless situation, and that’s where Eden rings false, amassing a series of plot turns and suspense scenes that seem ported in from a generic thriller. It eventually becomes the escapist entertainment it works so hard not to be.