It seems to be harder and harder for excellent movies on difficult subjects to find their way to theaters.

"Holly" was filmed more than two years ago. (Chris Penn, who died in January 2006, plays a supporting role.) After making the rounds at festivals, it finally is opening theatrically.

An unsparing look at child prostitution is a hard sell for audiences, but this movie is a memorable achievement, far superior to the recently released "Trade," another movie about sex trafficking.

Producer and co-writer Guy Jacobson was inspired to make the film when traveling in Cambodia several years ago and being approached by child prostitutes, some as young as 6 or 7. He worked with director Guy Moshe on fashioning the script, which is admirably lean and unsentimental and all the more powerful as a result.

They begin the film by intercutting the adventures of the two main characters. Holly (newcomer Thuy Nguyen) is a 12-year-old girl brought back to a Cambodian brothel after trying to escape. At the same time, Patrick (Ron Livingston), an American expatriate and gambler living in Cambodia, goes to work for a shady entrepreneur (Penn) and finds himself in the town where Holly is imprisoned.

When the two meet, he takes a paternal interest in her, and she sees him as a possible savior. At first Patrick tries to keep his distance, but eventually he decides to play a more active role in rescuing her.

Filmed on location in Cambodia, the picture benefits from an extraordinarily vivid atmosphere. Many of the actors are nonprofessionals, adding to the sense of authenticity. The film successfully walks a fine line, underscoring the sordid nature of the sex trade without resorting to any exploitative or titillating scenes. The characterizations are also richly layered, aided by superb performances from the two stars.

The backgrounds of both characters are deliberately left fairly sketchy. We are told a bit about Holly's family in Vietnam, and there are allusions to Patrick's troubled past in America, but the script concentrates on their present dilemmas and leaves their back stories opaque.

Nguyen highlights Holly's fierce determination, which makes her vulnerability even more poignant. Livingston does a marvelous job of conveying Patrick's solicitousness without turning him into any kind of plaster saint. In fact, one of the most intriguing elements of the film is its acknowledgment that Patrick feels a tinge of attraction to Holly that is not purely platonic. His struggle against his darker impulses is the film's most provocative drama, eloquently expressed in Livingston's subtle performance.

Penn, Udo Kier as a cynical lawyer and Virginie Ledoyen as a human rights advocate have small parts, but all give strong performances. Technical credits are first-rate, and there is a haunting score by Ton-That Tiet. To its credit, the film ends without any false reassurances; it leaves the characters' fates unresolved. The last shot is a telling close-up of Holly that places the burden on the audience, daring us to open our eyes to the plight of abused children all over the world.

Priority Films
Max Entertainment, Vox Entertainment, Autumn Entertainment Partners
Director: Guy Moshe
Screenwriters: Guy Jacobson, Guy Moshe
Producers: Guy Jacobson, Adi Ezroni, Guy Moshe, Nava Levin
Executive producers: Jennifer Krychowecky, David Wiener, Charles Feng, Amit Kort
Director of photography: Yaron Orbach
Production designer: Gabriel Higgins
Music: Ton-That Tiet
Costume designer: Rotem Noyfeld
Editor: Isabella Monteiro de Castro
Holly: Thuy Nguyen
Patrick: Ron Livingston
Marie: Virginie Ledoyen
Klaus: Udo Kier
Freddie: Chris Penn
Mama San: Montakan Ransibrahmanakul
Ma Tommy: Sahajak Boonthanakit
Running time -- 113 minutes
MPAA rating: R