Film Review: ‘Priceless’

Joe Leydon
Variety

Cynics doubtless will snark that “Priceless” is pretty much what you would expect of a faith-based movie about human trafficking: The resourceful hero finds God while rescuing girls and young women from the clutches of flesh-peddlers; said flesh-peddlers are given to obscenity-free tough-talk; flesh is never bared, and all allusions to sexual activity are so decorously oblique, they would pass muster with Old Hollywood enforcers of the Production Code. But more simpatico viewers — especially, though perhaps not exclusively, the film’s target audience of churchgoers and evangelicals — are more likely to appreciate the overall restraint of this slickly produced indie drama, and embrace its underlying theme of redemption through selfless action.

Joel Smallbone of the Christian pop duo For King & Country (which co-produced the film) is effectively cast in the lead role of James Stevens, a melancholy hunk whose life has been in a booze-fueled tailspin since the death of his wife. After losing several jobs, and engaging in at least one violent barroom altercation, he loses custody of his young daughter, and is forced to accept a dodgy job driving a box truck carrying unknown cargo cross-country with no questions asked.

While en route to his destination, James discovers he is transporting two Mexican sisters, Antonia (Bianca Santos) and Maria (Amber Midthunder), who assume they have been smuggled into the U.S. to pay off a family debt by working as domestics. But when James turns over his passengers to Garo (Jim Parrack), the smooth-talking sleaze who has financed the transport, he suspects something is amiss. Even so, it takes our hero a while to deduce the obvious: Garo is a pimp, and the sisters will be fresh merchandise for him. It takes James a little longer to decide — after being egged on by Dale (David Koechner), a motel operator with a personal grudge against flesh peddlers — that he should make amends for his indirect involvement and save the sisters from bondage.

The screenplay by Chris Dowling and Tyler Poelle is, at best, predictable pulp with a smidgen of religion. Indeed, the characters are so thinly written that they are defined entirely by the actors portraying them. But director Ben Smallbone (brother of the movie’s lead player) is adept at generating suspense, particularly during a scene in which James attempts a phone conversation with his daughter while bad guys lurk outside his motel room, and manages to persuasively convey the seediness, desperation, and danger that define the demimonde that Garo rules with a whim of iron. To put it another way: “Priceless” achieves greater impact through understatement and implication than many other similarly plotted movies do with R-rated explicitness.

As James, Joel Smallbone makes good on the promise he evinced as an actor in “Like a Country Song” (2014), another faith-based movie that cast him as a lost soul in need of a shot at redemption. (At the risk of sounding blasphemous: He seems ready for a role in a more secular picture.) Santos and Midthunder are suitably sympathetic, while Parrack is most chilling whenever Garo tries his best to seem like a reasonable, rational wholesaler of specialized product. But Koechner is the true revelation here. Normally cast in comic (or, in the case of 2013’s “Cheap Thrills,” darkly comic) roles, he comes across here as credibly and creditably serious and sincere, whether he’s revealing the reason behind Dale’s contempt for pimps, or encouraging the protagonist by reiterating the movie’s message: God’s will must be done, even when doing it requires some righteous butt-kicking.

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