Cinematic thrillers about human trafficking necessarily have to walk a very fine line between shining a spotlight on a vital social issue and mere exploitation. First-time filmmaker Adisa mainly handles the balancing act well with his debut feature, even if the low-budget indie too often resembles a vigilante-themed episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Featuring a strong lead performance by Erica Ash (Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse), Skin in the Game proves an engrossing addition to a sadly burgeoning sub-genre.
Unlike many previous similarly themed efforts which depicted the travails of sex trafficking victims in Third World countries, this effort scripted by Steven Palmer Peterson is entirely set on U.S. soil. The easy prey is 15-year-old Dani (Sammi Hanratty), unceremoniously snatched off the streets of Los Angeles by a trafficking ring that has lured her by a fake internet account where she thought she was talking to an older man. The innocent young girl winds up in a house of prostitution led by Eve (Angélica Celaya, fully leaning into her villainous portrayal) and her violent minions, who give Dani the working name “Sunshine.”
The film’s most interesting and yet unfortunately underdeveloped plot element concerns the relationship between Dani’s single mother Sharon (Elisabeth Harnois), a nurse, and Lena (Ash), whom she enlists to help track her daughter down since the police are unwilling to get involved in a missing person case for 24 hours. The two former friends were once close, with Lena even being Dani’s godmother. But they have become estranged for reasons that are never explained, leaving us to frustratingly guess about exactly what happened between them.
Lena has more than a little experience in the world Sharon is attempting to penetrate, since she was once an unwilling prostitute herself. As we see in an early scene, she now dedicates herself to helping women who have found themselves in a similar plight. The film is at its most effective with its gripping depiction of Sharon’s attempts to extract information from her former underworld contacts, displaying formidable courage and bad-ass steeliness in the process. Especially since, as frequent flashbacks to her past reveal, her efforts to rescue Dani are inevitably leading to post-traumatic stress.
Also interesting is the subplot concerning Violet (Stefanee Martin, delivering a powerful performance), another young woman involuntarily working for Eve, who’s involved in a romantic relationship with one of the men charged with handling her. At least Violet thinks she’s involved; she’s delighted when he unexpectedly gives her a gift, until she discovers that it’s the sort of obscenely short, tight dress meant to be worn on the job. It’s a vivid reminder of the innocence and naivety that can so easily be exploited for nefarious ends.
Skin in the Game unfortunately piles on the melodrama, turning Dani and Sharon into an unlikely crime-busting team that threatens to turn the movie into grindhouse fare. By the time the latter uses her nursing skills to threaten one of the bad guys with a syringe, credibility has long since gone out the window.
Director Adisa displays estimable technical chops with this debut effort, infusing the proceedings with such stylistic flourishes as the frequent use of split-screen that inevitably recalls the ’70s-era thrillers to which the film bears a marked resemblance.
Production companies: Kandoo Films, Khepra Films
Distributor: Kandoo Films
Cast: Erica Ash, Elisabeth Harnois, Angélica Celaya, Sammi Hanratty, Gideon Adlon
Screenwriter: Steven Palmer Peterson
Producer: Howard Barish
Director of photography: Kira Kelly
Production designer: Christina Eunji Kim
Editor: Alex Ivany
Composer: Jeff Morrow
Costume designer: Jessica Basista