Citizen-soldiers eager to renew hostilities in the American culture wars can shoot a couple of spitballs at each other this week over Little Secrets, a teen-anxiety movie that leaves no doubt where it stands on "family values" and moral absolutes. It approves. The shock troops of the Cinema Without Limits army are unlikely to buy many tickets, but those who do will probably see the thing as sanctimonious pabulum -- even for its target audience of adolescents. You could make book on it.
While the combatants skirmish, here are a few facts. Shot in a well-scrubbed, tree-shaded, happily prosperous suburb of Salt Lake City, Secrets tells the uplifting tale of fourteen-year-old Emily Lindstrom (blond, blue-eyed Evan Rachel Wood, from ABC's Once and Again), another young movie heroine with talent and problems. An only child, Emily studies violin (she's a bit show-offy about it) and dreams of playing in the symphony, but she's upset over the impending birth of a sibling. Not only that, but she's growing ever more conflicted about the peculiar business she runs: For some reason, the neighborhood kids, cute-as-a-button all, are willing to pay her 50 cents a shot to safeguard their guilty secrets -- breaking Mom's precious teacup, a boy's urge to dig his way to China, a tiny girl's forbidden addiction to kittens. Truth is, confessor Emily's got a deep, dark secret of her own. She's -- yes -- adopted, and even her best friends don't know. From this, the filmmakers spin a major trauma (or try to) and eventually instruct all present on the necessity of honesty, the treasures of family love and, while they're at it, the evils of drunk driving.
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"There's a lot of toxic stuff out there," director Blair Treu declares in a manifesto tucked into the studio's press notes. "I should portray stories and people in a positive, redemptive light."
Redemption is certainly the strong suit of this Disney Channel veteran. Along with product placements for certain brands of breakfast cereal and candy, and some tourist-brochure views of downtown Salt Lake, Treu and screenwriter Jessica Barondes (they earlier collaborated on Wish Upon a Star) serve up soul-cleansing portions of sweetness and light, salted with some minor friction. Emily makes friends with twelve-year-old Philip (Michael Angarano), who's moved in next door. She meets regularly with her wise and patient violin teacher (Vivica A. Fox) at the local music store and doggedly prepares for an orchestra audition that we just know she'll have to miss. She spars with her squeaky-clean parents. She worries. And her secret-keeping biz goes sour when Barondes's plot compels the teen heroine to break her vows of secrecy.
Inevitably comes the moment of truth. After falling off a roof and winding up in a hospital bed, Emily renounces her backyard extortion racket in favor of transparency, full disclosure and 100 percent refunds to the kids who parted with their hard-earned allowance money. Through her friends' loyalty, she wins a spot in a youth orchestra. She bonds with Mom at the birth of her sister and gets a first glimpse of romance via Philip's older brother, David (David Gallagher). Then everyone goes home, according to director Treu's mission statement, "feeling a little better about the world or a little better about yourself than when you laid down your seven bucks."
Whether you part with those seven bucks is your business. So is how you actually feel afterward.