Dana’s existence is a lonely one, and it’s perhaps one of the first things you’ll notice about her in La mala noche (The Longest Night), Gabriela Calvache’s unflinchingly bleak drama. Dana (Noëlle Schönwald) is slender and pretty, but within minutes of the movie’s beginning, she is already using drugs to help her through a tiring day of unsatisfying sex work. The men in her life are merely clients or worse, her abusive boss, Nelson (Jaime Tamariz). As The Longest Night continues, the audience learns that this was not the path she had chosen for herself but a trade she was forced into by dire circumstances.

Since its debut at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, The Longest Night has become Ecuador’s entry for the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film, the newly re-christened category from Best Foreign Language Film.

Written and directed by Calvache, The Longest Night marks the filmmaker’s narrative feature debut. Although the movie feels quite intense in its subject matter, it does not fetishize or sensationalize the depictions of Dana’s sex work. Instead, Calvache focuses on Dana’s face and her body language during intimate moments, highlighting just how uncomfortable she is and how much she must hide in order to do her job. In one particularly tense scene, a client manhandles her up until she demands to know why he’s being rough with her. As he coldly brushes aside her question, the scene grows more uncomfortable before it cuts to the next one — and that’s how the film handles most of the sex in its story, like a mental block skipping over to something else.

Although the movie feels quite intense in its subject matter, it does not fetishize or sensationalize the depictions of Dana’s sex work.

There are times when it feels like Dana’s story falls too much into the cliché of a tragic prostitute, but Schönwald and Calvache work hard to explain her back story. In order to support her dying child, Dana accrues a medical debt so insurmountable, Nelson forces her to work for him, dangling a promotion into a more lucrative gig over her head. One client asks her what she does to unwind, foolishly asking if he makes her happy. She smiles and caresses his face. We know she’s letting him believe what he wants to believe. Each sad reveal about her life can also weigh the movie down, and for a time, it seems like Dana is doomed to meander through the rest of the story until she meets an awful end. Instead, the movie gives Dana an unexpected redemptive arc in the form of a new mission. On one of her trips to pay her debt to Nelson, she spots Lulu (Ariana Freire), a girl of no more than 8 years old, in the halls of his guarded compound. She fears for the little girl if she doesn’t intervene.

Visually, The Longest Night enhances the disparity between Dana and her well-heeled clients. She meets them at a decent hotel or at a nice apartment. Her home looks humble in comparison, small and not as well lit as other places. When she needs to go to a hospital, it’s a public hospital that lacks many windows and looks dingy. The hospital one of her main clients works at is an expensive-looking private hospital that looks spacious, well-lit and clean. Comparing the two worlds purposefully deglamorizes the life of a woman forced into prostitution and emphasizes Dana’s precarious situation.

At times, The Longest Night can be painful to watch. Not just during the scenes of Dana with her clients, but also at Nelson’s house, where the movie shows us glimpses of the scope of his sex trafficking operation. It’s not just little Lulu who he traps but several roomful of young women and girls, a number of whom are only shown when they’re moved out to possibly be sold. There’s also the character of Wendy (Nadine Muñoz Cervantes), who at first seems like she’s helping Lulu find her mom after an earthquake has separated them, but then it becomes apparent that she’s, in fact, working for Nelson, picking unaccompanied girls up off the street under a false pretense to bring them back to her boss. Later in the movie, there’s a quick moment where she asks Dana for help, a hint that possibly because of her pregnancy, she was probably forced into kidnapping girls for Nelson. That might have been the promotion in store for Dana, but instead of sticking to her original plan, she decides to break the cycle of abuse and stand up for the innocent girl as no one stuck up for her.

The movie saves its emotional punches for the end, leading to a crescendo packed with some notes of empowerment, violence and a stunning ending. As the credits roll, so do the statistics of how young Ecuadorian girls are when they’re forced into sex trafficking (13 years old, on average) and how many millions of victims there are in the world (21 million). Under the disguise of a compelling woman-led thriller, Dana’s suffering had a purpose after all: to raise awareness of a still-growing problem.

La mala noche is screening on November 27 in Los Angeles as part of Hola Mexico Film Festival’s Latin American Nomination Screenings.