Can you keep a secret?
Kids are taking over the movies these days. What with The Lizzie Maguire Movie, the Amanda Bynes vehicle What a Girl Wants, and other 'tween offerings crowding the cineplex, it doesn't take much intuition to smell the studio executive greed in the air. On the cusp of this youth-oriented upswing was Little Secrets, released in 2002 and starring Evan Rachel Wood, the sweet and extremely skinny star of TV's Once and Again. It's a fable about a girl who counsels the neighborhood kids with their darkest secrets whilst trying not to let her own private affairs overwhelm her. Is it a winner for family DVD night?
Facts of the Case
In quiet Vintage Oaks, Emily (Evan Rachel Wood) keeps secrets for the neighborhood kids for 50 cents apiece. She has lots of time on her hands, practicing for a coveted spot in a junior symphony while her friends Laurel and Jenny muck it up at camp. Plus, her mom Caroline (Jan Gardner, Everwood) is giddily expecting a "late in life" bundle of joy, providing much consternation on her part. But when a new family moves in next door, Emily finds her hands full with their two sons. Younger brother Philip develops a crush on Emily, and a dark secret threatens to keep her away from the older and mutually attracted David. This girl has more than a secret to keep—pretty soon, her sanity is at risk too!
Kids' movies devoted to that precarious 'tween age group have to straddle drama and humor with a healthy dose of straightforwardness. I was reading my mom's magazines when I was six, so most kids' movies just didn't cut it for me. Realistic dialogue just wasn't the hallmark of the Babysitters' Club movie, you know? However, I was pleased to see Little Secrets talk straight at kids, not above them, not beneath them.
Emily suffers the usual adolescent drama of love triangles, stressful tests (in this case, the symphony audition), and family headaches as her parents shine with expectancy. Along with these story lines, we get doses of more childlike humor as the little ones who tell her secrets deal with their own issues—a girl smuggling kittens in her room, a boy who just might really have found dinosaur bones in his backyard. These charming moments blend well with Emily's heartache and hard work.
The writing keeps things light and, most importantly, real. Sure, very few people grow up in spacious four-bedroom houses in mature wooded neighborhoods—the filmmakers were so thoughtful inserting someone less-than-white as often as possible—but plenty of people have broken mom's china teapot or got caught doing something so bad your parents may actually ground you for life. First crushes and new babies are nothing new, either. Writer Jessica Barondes addresses these themes with lightheartedness, and she has great actors to deliver the lines. Wood is quite wonderful as Emily; she is intelligent and "real" without being creepily precocious. Michael Anagram as Philip is a bit of a punk and adds plenty of smart-assed charm to the proceedings. David Gallagher as David is plenty hunky enough to be the leading man and gets by just fine on looks and meaningful glances. Plus there's a great turn by Vivian A. Fox as Emily's violin coach, Pauline.
Performances aren't much good, however, if they're poorly framed—and here, Blair True directs a film as if it were for adults—sincerely. The cinematography was wonderful and the direction was fluid and elegant, surprisingly so considering the subject. But shouldn't kids' movies have the same sort of finesse in production values as adult films?
The 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround sound worked just fine for this movie. Because there's plenty of classical music going on this film, it was actually a blessing and not a distraction to hear a full, dynamic mix, especially during a montage sequence in which backbeats are put to a classical song.
Visually, the film was done well, with a choice between 1.85:1 widescreen and full screen. Naturally, the wide screen is preferable, and there was no specking, edge enhancement, or other imperfections to distract from the even colors and tones of the picture.
The Little Secrets DVD comes with a healthy set of extras. An 11-minute-long "Making of" featurette mostly delves into the character and story; very little production trivia is addressed. This makes sense, considering the target audience.
Blair True and Jessica Barondes, the director and writer, respectively, provide excellent tidbits on the generously offered commentary track. Here's where all the technical goodies come in—stunt doubles, location miniatures, long-lens shots—Treu spills it all. Barondes discusses the creative process and how the film came about, and there's nary a boring moment. It's a surprisingly "adult"-ish commentary track that is no less fun than the actual movie.
A blooper reel is cute and sure to be a hit with the kids, and widescreen trailers for Little Secrets, Kermit's Swamp Years, and Stuart Little 2 round out the extras. Oh, and as a special bonus, an extra soundtrack disc is included too (which features the instrumental score from the film). Nothing to rival, oh, say, the 8 Mile soundtrack, but not a bad bang for your buck.
It's nice to see a film for kids that neither talks down to them nor overreaches in subject matter. With equal doses of playfulness and wisdom, Little Secrets is a pleasant 90 or so minutes of family viewing, and it's no "secret" (ahhh! I couldn't help myself!) that everyone loves a technically perfect DVD presentation of any film, whether for kids or adults.
Little Secrets may be the best kept secret in kids' movies of the past year…well worth a watch. Free to go and charm adults and kids alike everywhere!
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