You have to appreciate the high-mindedness of “Priceless,” a faith-based drama in which a “transporter” makes it his business to free Mexican women he’s unknowingly delivered into the Southwestern U.S. sex trade.
But other good intentions — director Ben Smallbone crafting a “star vehicle” for his hunky Nashville singer brother Joel — tend to trip this sluggish melodrama up.
Joel Smallbone stars as James, just a guy with anger issues driving a third hand box truck through the desert southwest. He used to be married, now he’s widowed. The truck used to be a U-Haul, now it’s got faded “party time” stickers, sort of hiding what he’s got inside.
He doesn’t know what his cargo is, doesn’t question the folks who give him fad wads of cash to do the driving, until he runs off the road and hears whimpering from the back. He breaks the lock, and voila — two young Mexican sisters appear (Bianca A. Santos, Amber Midthunder).
The film’s most honest moment has James slam the door shut, as if he doesn’t want to see what he’s a party to. He changes his mind, helps them clean up, even buys them fresh dresses. The film’s most dishonest moment comes at the point of delivery, when the recipient (Jim Parrack) shows up with a van full of women, and two roses for the girls.
James acts shocked. He’s not living up to his favorite tattoo — “Let all you do be done in love.” This is about sex, not love.
And he’s the only person on Earth who hasn’t figured out exactly what these two young women have been smuggled into the U.S. to do.
Veteran character actor David Koechner plays a blunt but sympathetic hotel manager who provides James with a motorcycle, then a car, to track down the smuggling ring. And he lays down the film’s faith-based message.
“The flames of tragedy can refine you.”
But Smallbone the director makes sure Smallbone the star gets the star treatment here. The most beautifully coiffed truck driver in North America frets with his forelock in most every shot. First thing he does after crashing his truck? Flip his perfectly trimmed hairdo out of his eyes.
James narrates, blankly, and acts as if there’s no real rush in saving these two “unspoiled” immigrants from their sex trade fates. Smallbone should be leaning into the frame, guiltily rushing hither and yon to “undo what I’ve done, somehow.”
Instead, he just comes off as a vain first-time leading man. The film just drags, content to stare longingly at Smallbone’s chiseled good looks and perfectly-trimmed stubble. The character arc, from “non-believer” to righteous man receiving his first “God shot,” is blase.
Koechner, consigned to comic jerk roles decades ago, may have relished his rare shot at a dramatic role. But there’s not a lot to the character, just motorcycles, a hat and other conveniences that will aid James in his quest.
“Priceless” isn’t a particularly dislikable film, just an exhausted one — a couple of scenes have sardonic bite, the final confrontation is staged with some thought.
As for the Smallbones (Joel is in the band King & Country with another sibling, Luke) sometimes, having a relative behind the camera “looking out for you” is a help. But sometimes, they’re just enablers playing to your vanity.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving human trafficking, and some violence
Running time: 1:37