Gripping ‘Eden’ focuses on world of sex trafficking

Proposed: that one of the basic issues for a storyteller is the matter of what to put in and what to leave out.

That sounds really obvious. But it’s a huge deal, and deciding what goes in (as opposed to all the other stuff that might go in but shouldn’t) makes the difference between a spellbinding experience and a nap.

It matters even more in movies than in literature; 10 pages of dull writing in a 400-page novel can be forgiven, but 10 off-key minutes in a movie will break an audience’s faith.

I thought about this principle while watching “Eden,” a harrowing film directed by Seattle resident Megan Griffiths.

Handled in middling fashion, the subject would have some punch: “Eden” is based on the story of Chong Kim, a victim of the sex-trafficking trade in the United States, so it has horror and suspense already built into it.

Even with that backbone in place, there are ways to mess this up, but “Eden” rarely sets a foot wrong. Given the potentially lurid material, Griffiths lends the film a sort of committed austerity, which comes to seem more horrifying for its calm approach.

The film’s protagonist (played with a tempered focus by Jamie Chung) is given the name Eden when forced into the world of human trafficking.

Within what appears to be a warehouse in the American Southwest, we witness a system in place, a collection of routines for breaking down the women trapped in this situation. These include not just physical cruelty but also emotional dependence, which turns out to be the captors’ creepiest strategy.

As grueling as this portrait is, something happens to shift the narrative weight: Eden herself begins to use a system. The movie doesn’t do anything so vulgar as announce this to the audience, so we gradually sense her transition from victim to calculating survivor.

Much of the suspense of the second half of the picture comes from Eden’s fraught relationship with her main captor (Matt O’Leary), an increasingly tangled connection inventively played by the actors (the cast also includes Beau Bridges, as a corrupt lawman).

The dead, dry locations are exactly right as a setting for this elemental drama.

Griffiths shot the film in Washington state, and having worked in a variety of moviemaking jobs before directing her first feature (“The Off Hours”) has gained something like local-legend status already; she’s also shot another film, “Lucky Them,” a project Paul Newman was working on before he died.

“Eden” has garnered its share of film fest buzz, including some awards from last year’s Seattle International Film Festival, and it deserves the attention: A project that might have emerged as either dutiful docudrama or exploitation comes to us on a measured tread that is disturbing and genuinely eerie.

Two events mark the opening of “Eden” this weekend at SIFF Cinema Uptown: a post-film panel Friday night on the subject of human trafficking, and a post-film appearance Saturday night by Megan Griffiths and producers Colin Plank and Jacob Mosler.

“Eden” (3½ stars)

Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths directs this gripping, eerie story of a teenager (Jamie Chung) forced into the world of sex-trafficking in the American Southwest. Rather than a sensational approach, the film concentrates on the systems and strategies that make up this world, and eventually shows how the protagonist shifts from victim to calculating survivor.

Rated: R for language, violence, subject matter.

Showing: SIFF Uptown.

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