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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Secret (Blu-ray)
The Secret (Blu-ray)
Image // R // August 26, 2008 // Region A
List Price: $35.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 20, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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Sam Marris (Olivia Thirlby) is sixteen and bitter. She's still stinging from being dragged out of Boston to the suburbs of who-the-hell-knows-where, she's a straight A student in a school where anyone with firing synapses is an instant outcast, and...well, she's a teenage girl, with so many hormones raging that she somehow
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manages to be giddy, pissed-off, depressed, and horny all in the space of a quarter-second. She gets along alright with her goofy, well-meaning pop (David Duchovny), but Sam's never really been able to figure out her mother. Hannah (Lili Taylor) adores her daughter, but she's always been saddled with the role of disciplinarian in the family, and having gotten married straight out of high school and her own teenage years being such a distant, dusty memory, she can't really relate to whatever it is that Sam's going through.

The thought's that maybe a mother-daughter roadtrip might help mend those fences, and Sam scowls and snoozes her way through as much of it as she can. Midway through a particularly nasty argument, though...? A violent car crash leaves them both hanging on by a thread, and as Ben tearfully looks on, his wife of nearly twenty years slips away. Hannah is still clutching her daughter's hand when Sam suddenly, impossibly gasps to life. It's bittersweet news for Ben: his daughter is peppered with bruises but is otherwise seemingly in perfect health, but this sixteen year old is insisting all of a sudden that she's his wife...that Hannah's soul is somehow inhabiting the body of her daughter.

Ben soon realizes that this isn't some off-kilter case of post-traumatic stress. His dead wife somehow is inside Sam's body, and this raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions. If Hannah is here, where's Sam? If her daughter does somehow claw her way back to this mortal coil, what happens to Hannah's displaced soul? Ben's faced with a woman he adores in a body he can't possibly bring himself to embrace, despite her stabs at seduction. They decide that if Sam does come back, her life needs to be in place as it was, so Hannah tries stepping into her daughter's shoes: returning to school, meeting her friends, and trying to go through life as best Sam would have. Hannah quickly learns just how little she really knew about her daughter, and the experience soon starts to transform her...

I usually try to steer clear of plot summaries that top-heavy, but it's tough to condense The Secret down to a few short sentences without it coming across as a more melodramatic spin on Freaky Friday. That's probably how The Secret would've ended up with a different creative team in tow: casting some teenaged bombshell who's unconvincingly playing dress-up, pretending that her mommy's soul is bounding around inside her, leering at the disturbing sexual tension between a husband and his wife who's somehow assumed the form of their 16 year old daughter, and scoring uncomfortable snickers instead of carrying any real dramatic weight. It's a very delicate balancing act, and despite being helmed by a relatively inexperienced actor-turned-director in Vincent Perez and a first-time screenwriter, The Secret is executed remarkably well.

The Secret's greatest asset
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by far is its cast. David Duchovny starts off as kind of dweeby but good-natured -- smirkingly apologizing to his daughter for not knowing how to drop a "my bad", for instance, by whipping out damn near every cliched expression and hand gesture from the past 34 years -- but the tension quickly ramps up after the accident. There's the sheer frustration that there are two people he adores more than life itself; he fears he's lost both, and this impossible situation brings distorted, incomplete fragments of both of them back. Duchovny conveys that mix of love, discomfort, and irritation wonderfully, and he's paired with a hell of a sparring partner.

The Secret marked one of Olivia Thirlby's first times in front of the camera -- this was shot before her breakout turn in Juno, I believe -- but there's no indication of any sort of inexperience here. Thirlby does an outstanding job playing what are essentially two separate, distinct characters in the same movie. She's convincing enough that it doesn't feel as if the same actress has just started delivering dialogue written for an adult; Thirlby channels Taylor's briefly glimpsed performance so effectively that even after watching her play Sam for the first act of the movie, the transition to taking hold of Hannah is seamless.

Having worked for so many years as an actor, director Vincent Perez certainly seems to know how to coax the best out of his cast, and The Secret is better for it. The Secret generally keeps the melodrama in check well enough, and its more emotional moments feel genuine and sincere. Admittedly, its pace is somewhat slow, the story does take the ":gasp!: What a shocking life my daughter leads!" angle a bit too far early on, and a few scattered moments are slightly fumbled, including some eye-rollingly clumsy hair styling during a scene meant to bridge these incarnations of Sam and Hannah. Still, I really enjoyed The Secret, feeling invested in its characters and drawn into a premise that easily could've devolved into self-parody. The Secret is a movie that's worth discovering as a rental, but its release on Blu-ray is unfortunately too lackluster for me to recommend as a purchase.

Video: Presented at an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and encoded with AVC, The Secret looks surprisingly lackluster on Blu-ray. The image is unusually soft and sorely lacking in the sort of detail and definition expected from such a recent film. Tighter shots still tend to look somewhat nice, but some stretches are virtually indistinguishable from what I'd expect out of an upconverted DVD, and this Blu-ray disc as a whole would seem to be only a modest step up. Even the opening and closing credits are blurry and smeared, leading me to think this is a poor mastering job rather than a deliberately rough-hewn aesthetic. Most of the color has been drained away in The Secret, reflecting the bleak, somber tone of the film. Still, the saturation is skewed enough that the cast often looks jaundiced in the movie's earliest moments, suffering from a sickly yellow tint to their lips. Black levels aren't pure, and even fades to black and the backdrop against the end credits fail to match the letterboxing bars at the top and bottom of the frame.

Audio: The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is expectedly subdued. Dialogue is naturally lavished with most of the attention, rendered cleanly and clearly without ever being unduly overwhelmed in the mix. A couple of lines are strained in a house party, but that's kind of the point. The surrounds are reserved primarily for light ambiance and to reinforce the strings in the score. Bass response is extremely light, even during the violent car crash and as the stereo blares at a party. It's not in the same league as most DTS-HD MA tracks, but all in all, the lossless audio is timid but tolerable.

A traditional Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack has also been included alongside subtitles in English (SDH) and Spanish.

Extras: The Secret is disappointingly lean on extras. In place of the standard issue making-of featurette is an 8 minute set of
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fly-on-the-wall footage captured during the shoot, primarily anchored around Vincent Perez interacting with the cast, peering through a viewfinder, and watching one key emotional scene unfold on a monitor. This is candid, untainted footage, veering away from talking head interviews or even any background music.

Each of The Secret's three top-billed actors are featured in a set of interviews, although these discussions seem to be aimed more towards people who haven't already seen the movie than those hoping to glean some additional insight. Lili Taylor's 12 minute interview seems uncomfortable and somewhat rambling, emphasizing that the true lives of teenage girls are underrepresented in cinema and how The Secret reflects a rarely-captured sense of reality. Taylor also fields some of the same questions posed to the rest of the cast, including working with an actor-turned-director in Vincent Perez and what the most intensely emotional scene was for her during the shoot. David Duchovny's interview (9 min.) touches on the universal relatability to the themes in this "romantic thriller" before settling into a discussion about balancing the movie's emotional weight. Finally, Olivia Thirlby discusses her lifelong passion for acting, her relative inexperience as a professional actress, and how she approached playing two very different characters in the same film. Of the three interviews, Taylor's is the most disposable, and while Duchovny's and Thirlby's are pleasant enough, they tend to just skim the surface and aren't essential viewing.

All of The Secret's extras are sourced from standard definition. Aside from an anamorphic widescreen trailer, all of this additional footage is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and upscaled, for whatever reason, to 1080i. Because of the limited extras and relatively short length of the film, The Secret fits comfortably on a single layer Blu-ray disc.

Conclusion: The premise of The Secret -- a grieving husband discovering that his late wife has somehow awakened in the body of their teenage daughter -- is delicate, and in lesser hands, it easily could've slipped into self-parody or felt unsettlingly incestuous. Vincent Perez sidesteps those problems, though, and convincingly sincere and wonderfully cast, The Secret as a movie comes recommended. Its release on Blu-ray is unfortunately a much tougher sell. Both the video and audio quality are somewhat disappointing, and its handful of extras feel like an indifferent shrug. Especially considering that this lackluster Blu-ray disc is going for twice the price of the DVD as I write this, I can't recommend this high definition release of The Secret as anything more than a rental. Rent It.
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