The Secret (2007) / Fantasy-Romance
aka Si j'etais toi

MPAA Rated: R for language, sexual references, and drug use among teens
Running time: 92 min

Cast: David Duchovny, Olivia Thirlby, Lili Taylor, Millie Tressiera, Brendan Sextan III, Ashley Springer, Trisha LaFache, Laurence Leboeuf, Corey Sevier
Director: Vincent Perez

Screenplay: Ann Cherkis (remake of the Japanese film, Himitsu, which was based on a novel by Keigo Higashino)
Review published October 5, 2008

There have been many films dealing with adults and children swapping bodies, letting adults know what it's like to be a kid again.  Freaky Friday, Vice Versa, Like Father Like Son -- the list goes on and on. The vast majority of these films play up the differences for laughs.  The Secret does not.  It is a much more somber exploration into the great cultural divide between a mother and her daughter, and how literally being in the shoes of the other is perhaps the only way to fully understand just what it's like to know why they are the way they are.

The story's premise is that a doting mother Hannah (Taylor, Gaudi Afternoon) and her 16-year-old daughter Sam (Thirlby, Juno) are involved in a terrible car accident that lands both in the emergency room.  While doctors feverishly try to save them, Hannah somehow manages to save her daughter from certain death by transferring her spirit into Sam's body, virtually breathing life back into her.  Problems arise once the younger girl awakens, only to discover that the mother is still alive in the body of the daughter.  This creates quite a dilemma for the husband and father, Benjamin (Duchovny, Trust the Man), who can't quite see her as either his wife or his daughter.  Hannah is sure that her daughter must be able to come back somehow, and sets about living her life for her in the chance that she will come back to inhabit her body.  As she goes back to school and hangs out with Sam's friends, she discovers that her secret life away from home is a far cry from the insular, safe world Hannah has raised her in. 

Swiss director Vincent Perez (Once Upon an Angel) skillfully dances through the minefield of potential disasters that could spin out from this implausible idea.  He makes it work, thanks largely to treating the material with a consistent seriousness and respect for the characters that allow us to identify with their conflicts in ways that make sense within the confines of the supernatural story.  The Japanese film Himitsu provides the inspiration for the story, adapted delicately by first-time screenwriter Ann Cherkis, but don't mistake this film for any of the myriad of Hollywood adaptations of J-Horror.  There are thriller elements to be sure, and paranormal causes, but the bulk of the film is a psychological drama and teen angst exploration. 

The Secret does seem eerily similar to another spirit-in-child's-body drama in recent years, Birth, dabbling with the possibility that Ben could presumably have sex with his wife while she inhabits his daughter's body, but this is a story angle that is left open to suggestion in one scene where Hannah makes a move but is dismissed, though they do have an intimate moment that fades to black, and the subject is never dealt with again.  It's a slippery slope to traverse, but it had to be explored somehow, and Perez manages to slide through the subject with a sensitivity to the audience, and does so without losing focus on what the film is supposed to be about.

Interesting motifs abound, particularly dealing with the issue of sight.  Ben is an optometrist, regularly helping others to correct their vision in order to see the world the way it is meant to be seen.  Hannah is an amateur photographer, trying to capture the world through her lens to preserve the moments as long as possible.  Both have to confront the fact that a great many truths in this world cannot be seen or understood, and that even those things that are meant to preserved themselves are easily lost. 

If there is a liability in the film, it's Duchovny's presence.  Duchovny isn't bad in the film, per se; he is just never quite asengaging as the rest of the elements.  The real breakthrough performance in the film belongs to Olivia Thirlby, who not only nails the performance of a troubled teen struggling to fit in to a new school and the pressures of her scholastic achievements, but also does a remarkable job in mimicking Lili Taylor's vocal patterns and mannerisms.  Her terrific performance provides the believability for the film to work; without it, you wouldn't have a film.

Despite some very fine elements, The Secret ultimately emerges as a solid final draft for a film that just needed one or two more intriguing elements to wrap its themes around.  It certainly intrigues, and spins a good yarn for the duration, but it lacks that extra bit of resonance to allow it to stand out on its own in the romantic paranormal thriller genre.  Nevertheless, it's well worth looking into if you're curious about the subject matter.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2008 Vince Leo