MISSING CHILD (Boston International Film Fest review)

By: debbie lynn elias

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Making its world premiere at the Boston International Film Festival, as well as marking the directorial debut of writer/actor Luke Sabis, is MISSING CHILD.  In short, MISSING CHILD is not to be missed at Boston or anywhere else on the festival circuit.  It is a film of which distributors should sit up and take notice as MISSING CHILD shines bright in the indie world.

MISSING CHILD is told through the eyes of Gia, a young woman in her 20’s.  Kidnaped as a young child, raised in a foster home, Gia suffered extreme physical and sexual abuse.  As she got older, her early traumas shaped her actions in her teenaged years, turning her to sex, video porn, prostitution.  But enough is enough and on meeting Joe, she is forced to face herself while given the hope of resolving her past demons.

With her focus on the future and a return to school, looming even larger is finding her birth parents.  Thanks to Joe and the discovery of an age-progressed photo of a missing child, Gia believes for the first time that maybe she can have that childhood dream of a loving parent who has never given up on finding her, one who will welcome and embrace her with loving arms.  Preying on this rose-colored dream of Gia’s, Joe pushes her to seek out her birth parents.  On the flip side, Gia’s best friend and co-worker, Debbie, sees red flags where Joe is concerned.  Almost twice Gia’s age, he is too eager, too hungry to “use” Gia’s trauma.  Something doesn’t sit right.

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Then out of thin air, Joe announces that he has found Gia’s birth father – Henry Whittle.  Behind her back, he has spoken to Whittle and made arrangements for them all to meet.   The meeting is uncomfortable, strained and tenuous at best and as the day goes on rather than a developing comfort and ease, disturbing facts come to light that will affect Whittle, Joe and above all, Gia.

MISSING CHILD is more than an impressive directorial debut by Sabis.  He knows story.  He knows character.  He does well with story pacing both thematically and visually,  not to mention a deft handling of often awkward silences which are built in as plot points with MISSING CHILD.   Well done.  On the flip side, there are some technical issues with framing, stabilization and lack of continuity with scene changes using fade to black, intermixed with cuts.   I question the loopy loosey goosey camera work at a dinner table scene.   Not to give up any spoilers, let me just say, as both a critic and filmmaker myself,  I “get it” why you might think of doing that with the camera,  but we have seen so many similar situations done so much better in film and tv over the decades with just simple VFX, this camera circling just doesn’t cut it and cheapens the film as a whole, taking the audience  out of the story.   Blurring the image would have provided much more beneficial and welcome to buttress and visually tell what’s happening while not distracting the audience.  A lot of close-ups used but framing falls short as we aren’t seeing a whole head or face.  It’s one thing to just focus on eyes, or a hand, but use the technique judiciously.  I think more effective would have been more mid-shots and better symmetry with the framing.

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Where Sabis truly excels on a technical level, however, is creating metaphor and solidifying his tonal bandwidth of story and imagery, particularly in a child’s bedroom in the Whittle house. The visual metaphor soars as very conscious and definite changes in the ambient texture of the room both before and after some significant events have taken place.  Key in the climactic and third act is some stunningly beautiful lighting by cinematographer Francisco Bulgarelli where he creates a very lovely emotional metaphor through shadow, complimented with a wonderful  overhead mini-crane shot as if the view of an angel looking down on Gia.  That one sequence is a perfect technical and emotional meld, capsulizing not only the story, but the directorial prowess of Sabis.

But let’s take a look at the script and performances, which go hand-in-hand to a large degree as the character construct, particularly that of Henry Whittle and Joe, are dependent upon the performance for the story to work.

As to the overall theme, thematic elements are strong, interesting.  Sabis and co-writer Michael Barbuto hit all the emotional beats and take us on a roller coaster of emotion with themes that tackle today’s headlines as well as the heart of an individual.  What I find particularly compelling, however,  is taking ideologies of religion, sex, child abuse, child abduction and pornography, and melding them all with a suspense building technique that leads to confessions-forgiveness of others and of ones’ own self-repentance and redemption, and setting it all loosely in a little girl lost/trying to find herself package.  A great yin & yang of the darkness and light not only in the world but within each individual.   It works beautifully.  And while every issue raised in the film is worthy of further discussion and exploration, Sabis tempers the amount of time spent on each, giving each tine of the story just enough of a nod to fuel characters and the story as a whole, focusing on the human darkness that comes with each of these elements.  Very well done.

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Thanks to the well paced structure, like Hansel & Gretel we are fed bread crumbs of information that take us down a primrose path to what is actually a wolf [witch] in sheep’s clothing.  The intrique is maintained.  More questions arise as one answer is given. Suspense grows until we see “truth”.   Are Joe and Henry are somewhat in cahoots.  Has Joe befriended, i.e., “loved”, Gia for money?  Is  Henry just a dirty old man?   Is Gia’s trauma and story really true?  Sabis and co-writer Michael Barbuto toss in plot twists that you don’t see coming a la Jennifer Lynch’s “Chained.”  Interesting, evocative and effective.

From the opening scene, the audience is fed enough clues so that we are on the same page with Gia’s friend, Debbie.  There’s just something “not right”, something untrustworthy about Joe.  Played by Sabis himself, he masters that rapier edge between decency and sleaze.   We see Gia on porn sites on a computer [literally on porn sites and ON a porn site], and because Joe looks and acts so much older than this outwardly quiet timid little mouse, you wonder if Joe’s pimping her out.  Story keeps raising questions, but gives answers as the questions intensify.  Then you wonder even more.

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Emotional tonal shifts are fueled by the cinematography.  With Gia heading to work and the introduction of Debbie and her son Noah, the whole mood changes.  Cinematography brightens.  There are no dark or yellowed shadows.  Once Gia is out of the house, the film lightens – as does Gia – as if a load has been lifted.  But when Gia is on screen with Joe and once they arrive at Henry’s house, we are met with cornered shadows, a yellower tinge to the overall palette, sharp angles of furniture and the layout in the home, the precision of things on the dinner table, in the kitchen.  The falsity of things being too forced, too perfect in appearance. Adds more curiosity to the character of Joe, and eventually Henry, not to mention more mistrust; and Sabis plays the character perfectly giving us nuance and tell-tale signs that fuel this questioning mistrust before ultimately delivering his performance payoff in his exchanges with Charles Gorgano’s Henry.  Key to Sabis’ performance and the character of Joe is that while we suspect he’s not a good guy, Sabis gives us enough to throw us off balance and make us question our opinion of Joe.  Delicate balancing act that he does well.

But, then there’s Charles Gorgano.  Three minutes of him as Henry – just his look and demeanor – and you feel like you need a shower to scrub his dirty mind and eyes away.  He has this look that makes you believe he is thinking pornographic thoughts. [Nagging me throughout is that I couldn’t help but think that he was indeed the man who molested/Kidnaped Gia as a child.]   But once again, thanks to the story, Gorgano does a complete 180 and you feel compassion for this man who now, in the shadow of a lone light on the edge of Gia’s bed, looks old, worn, alone and remorseful.  I so appreciate that Henry’s own confession  takes place in the bedroom with the childlike lightness of the design – white wicker, pinks, soft lamps.  Given all the biblical reference and prayer and admonishments that occur, in my mind’s eye I saw the famous King James Bible picture of Jesus surrounded by all the little children whom he called to him.  There was an innocence to Henry that was refreshing and Gorgano let us see a heart.  Wonderful moment in the story and in the film.

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But MISSING CHILD belongs to Kristen Ruhlin’s Gia.  From the start she reminds me of a fresher, younger and more timid Ellen Page like in “Homeless to Harvard”.  A shy girl, observing, afraid, lost and trying to find herself.   she is victim to her own sorrow, to the voices in her head.  The camera loves Ruhlin and Ruhlin knows how to work the camera.  Silence and nuance are her friends and the ultimate result is poignant strength.  Very very impressive performance.

Kudos to Sabis with the visual and sound design of constant tv and radio in the background to help define Gia.  Not remembering who she is or everything that has happened to her, sights and sounds can either help to block the pain or fill her untapped memories.  Nice touches – and particularly black and white tv –  as in the world of Henry, everything is either black or white; either you’re good, devout and religious or you’re not.  Also notable are the actual movies Sabis chose from the public domain to have playing on the background tv’s – The Little Rascals in “Our Gang” [taps into the child, the kid], Edward G. Robinson gangster movie [crimes of both Joe and Henry], Laurel & Hardy [comedy always cover darker issues].

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Icing on the cake is an eclectic score and soundtrack by Luke Sabis himself.

Although there are some unresolved loose ends in the story and some technical issues within the film’s design, the strength of MISSING CHILD comes with the story, its construct and its themes, and above all, the performances.  Luke Sabis shows himself to not only be a solid actor, but a solid director, one whom I hope won’t be missing on our horizons in the future.

Directed by Luke Sabis

Written by Luke Sabis and Michael Barbuto

Cast:     Kristen Ruhlin, Luke Sabis, Charles Gorgano