Important story, subpar execution. That's the takeaway from "Sold," a disturbing, Dickensian tale of human trafficking that called for a more epic telling than this choppy, rudimentary adaptation of Patricia McCormick's 2006 novel.
Lakshmi (Niyar Saikia) is a poor 13-year-old girl from Nepal whose parents unwittingly send her off with "Auntie" Bimla (Tillotama Shome), a charismatic visitor to their mountain village, to supposedly work as a domestic in India. However, once Lakshmi arrives in Kolkata, she finds herself imprisoned in a shabby brothel called "Happiness House" and forced to work under the iron fist of its cruel madam, Mumtaz (Sushmita Mukherjee). Witnessing the naïve, terrified and at times drugged Lakshmi submit to the bordello's nasty, violent clientele is tough stuff and belies the film's lenient PG-13 rating.
Meanwhile, an intrepid American photographer (Gillian Anderson) joins forces with a local human rights group, which includes an undercover investigator (Parambrata Chatterjee) and a U.S. volunteer (David Arquette, in a barely there role), to help rescue Lakshmi from her heinous environment. This story strand, though ultimately integral, is too cursorily woven in to gain any real momentum.
Back at Happiness House, Lakshmi reluctantly learns the ropes, befriends the other sex workers and discovers how to protect herself — particularly from disease — all while staying vigilant to her dicey surroundings. But instead of ratcheting up the tension, director Jeffrey D. Brown, who co-wrote with Joseph Kwong, lets things slacken and turn a bit episodic after the film's midpoint. Strangely, we also never return to Lakshmi's parents; it'd be nice to know what they're thinking in their beloved daughter's absence.
Another problem is young Saikia, whose pivotal part required far more range, depth and authenticity than this tyro actress can summon. She works hard here — but it shows.
The statistics of how many children worldwide are trafficked and sold into slavery each year is staggering, their trajectories heartbreaking. So it's unfortunate that Brown and company were unable to bring stronger narrative and filmmaking skills to this vital subject. Better to check out 2005's similarly themed Oscar-winning documentary, "Born Into Brothels," which, not coincidentally, Brown says inspired his work here.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for disturbing thematic material involving the trafficking of children.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.