A movie about a teenager that wouldn't have credibility with anyone over the age of 12, "Little Secrets" is something akin to a Wonderful World of Disney special -- harmless, wholesome and just barely winning enough to overcome its fantasy-suburban, Norman Rockwell nature.
It's the story of Emily (Evan Rachel Wood, also in this week's "Simone"), a pretty 14-year-old who is at an age when her priorities are moving toward pursuing her gift for the violin and away from her lemonade-stand style "business" as a professional confessor. For 50 cents per secret, intelligent, outgoing Emily has provided confidentiality and advice to neighborhood kids who have broken parents' favorite trinkets, smuggled kittens into their bedrooms or posed as their big sisters in online chat rooms.
The pat-on-the-head plot revolves both around Emily's friendship with Philip, an 11-year-old new neighbor who has a crush on her (played by Michael Angarano, the pre-teen William Miller in "Almost Famous") and around her upcoming audition for a youth orchestra. But at the same time, her secret-keeping is becoming a burden, as she starts hearing mea culpas she wishes she hadn't -- like the fact that Philip's petulant proto-boy-band cute older brother (David Gallagher) was in a joy-riding accident with a friend who had been drinking. Emily's disproportionately piqued reaction to this tidbit hints heavily at a secret of her own that the rest of the movie builds toward revealing.
Simplistic and under-ambitious, "Little Secrets" is propped up by the performances of Wood and Angarano. They are both such appealing kids and natural actors that the picture's overly idyllic setting, its annoyingly plinky-jolly score and its unrealistic, everything-can-be-fixed-with-a-pep-talk take on teenage life aren't as irritating (to adults anyway) as they might be otherwise.
Grasping for a catalyst to bring the story to a conclusion in the last act, screenwriter Jessica Barondes and director Blair Treu (who made the Disney Channel's "Wish Upon A Star" together) invent a minor catastrophe to force characters at odds to come together and resume warm-fuzzy camaraderies. The contrived nature of this plot device is so transparent that an ambulance-worthy injury results in little more than a Band-Aid on somebody's forehead. But the artifice does the trick anyway. Even your cynical movie critic was affected a little by the movie's climax.
"Little Secrets" has been ringingly endorsed by something called the Heartland Film Festival, which sounds like exactly what it is: an organization that places content over quality in an attempt to promote "family values." But if you're a parent desperate for a movie you can take your youngster to without worrying about sex or violence, "Little Secrets" fits the bill without being it's-just-a-kids'-movie insipid.