|James and Maria in Priceless|
“A Worthless Sin, A Priceless Person”A Review of Priceless by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Two Reels
Slavery is often considered an institution of a past long forgotten, yet it is still a reality for untold millions worldwide. It hasn’t gone away, just gotten cleverer. In fact, human trafficking is the second largest illegal business in the United States, only after arms trading. It is even larger than the drug trade. Priceless wisely steers away from the broader issue to focus on a single story, yet it is one that will be recognizable for many people. Slaves aren’t halfway across the world; they might be right next door.
In the opening montage, the audience is introduced to James (Joel Smallbone), a depressed widow who recently lost custody of his daughter and takes various odd jobs in a vain attempt to stabilize his life. He agrees to drive a moving truck from the Mexican border into Southern California. “Don’t look at the package,” he is warned, yet a strange noise prompts him to discover that his cargo is two young illegals, Antonia and her teenager sister Maria. Despite this knowledge, he stills carries them to the destination, although he has the decency to supply them with food, clothes, and conversation. They tell him they were promised jobs to send money back home. Yet something doesn’t seem right and soon he finds that this “work” is far more than they bargained for. Racked with guilt for his part in their pain, James plunges into an Orphean journey to find them with the assistance of Dale (David Koechner), a hotel owner who seems to have a much too intimate knowledge of the business.
Priceless occupies an odd niche in cinema in that it was not made by professional filmmakers but singers, specifically the Christian rock group King & Country. Joel Smallbone, the lead singer, has the starring role while his brother Ben writes and directs and his father David produces. As a first effort, it’s not glaringly terrible but this motley crew clearly has a long way to go. The beginning is incredibly rushed while the middle hour moves at a snail’s pace. Both in cinematography and in tone, the film is dark and grim, with only small rays of light filtering through the haze. The acting is not awful, just rough around the edges. The one exception is Apatow regular David Koecher in his first dramatic role. It’s a complicated and wonderful performance, but amongst all the other mediocrity, his professionalism is painfully obvious.
In an effort to meet Antonia again, James poses as a client for her services. Her pimp insists that she is too new and not yet ready for customers, but any evil man can be won over with enough cash. “How much is she worth to you?” he asks. The answer is in the title, and the audience can guess the theme from the first moment. Her pimp doesn’t value her because in his eyes, she is property. James doesn’t value her because he doesn’t value anything. What both miss is that a person’s value comes from God, not the validation of others and certainly not from our perceived worth to other human beings. This principle is one of the few things Priceless gets absolutely right. Everyone is priceless and has a chance at redemption, even the pimp – a nice touch you don’t see often.
Human trafficking is a sensitive subject matter, especially when it involves sex and minors. Priceless’ treatment is quite restrained, even using euphemisms in its language (I don’t think the word “rape” appeared once). If not for the material, this film could be rated PG, with one notable exception. At times, it feels too guarded; yet, it is a welcomed respite from the usual way films depict such events. Had this produced by HBO, it would have contained several extended scenes of nudity and graphic forced sex. Most in the industry defend this type of exhibitionism as “realism,” but even if the goal is to show the evil of a situation, modesty both for the victims and actors is necessary.
It’s difficult to find an audience for such a film, which is a shame. Priceless unearths an important topic that needs more exposure. However, the message was so obvious through every moment that the picture is oddly alienating. It will probably go the same way as most independent Christian productions: ending up in the libraries of private schools as a safe way to learn about the subject in morality class. Living in Southern California myself, I often wondered why there were so many run down hotels and how could they all stay in business. Now I know. What can I do about it? That question remains, but even just awareness is worth something.