Thursday, July 23, 2015

Lila & Eve, An Open Secret

Lila & Eve
An Open Secret

"Lila & Eve" crashed and burned out of Sundance, but Samuel Goldwyn acquired it from a new division called Lifetime Films, and that's exactly what it is: a woman-centered, Lifetime TV movie with a big-screen cast.

Viola Davis stars as Lila, an Atlanta single mother whose older son is murdered in a wrong-time-wrong-place drive-by shooting aimed at somebody else. Jennifer Lopez is Eve, a new friend Lila meets at a support group for mothers of murder victims. Eve shares Lila's skepticism about the group's advice (you would too if they told you to "get a hobby"), but, like Lila, keeps coming back. Eventually they start spending time together, and Eve pushes Lila to take charge of her emotional well-being through vigilantism, to find the creeps who killed her son and get them back.

The body count rises as Lila works her way up the ladder from the street dealer who fired the bullet that her son intercepted to the kingpin who ordered the hit. Credulity strains as these deaths go unsolved and Lila, a loving and moral person, evinces callous disregard for her actions. We wait as the detective (Shea Whigham) originally assigned to her son's case slowly pieces together Lila's involvement, ever-so-subtly lets her know he'll have to bring her in if she goes any further, and, when she does, backs off as soon as the women in the support group offer impromptu (and obviously phony) alibis. Give me a break.

A late plot twist involving Eve's identity - which Stephen Holden in the NY Times said "propels the movie deep into the ozone" -- is actually its most salient aspect. The moment of revelation is a shocker, and I've spent time thinking back on earlier scenes in which Patrick Gilfillan's script preserves the twist's logical consistency. Lopez is always a welcome presence onscreen, though we've spent 17 years waiting for her to find a role as juicy as Karen Sisco in Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight." 

All the performances are pitched at a TV level, as is Charles Stone's flat direction. An actress named Yolonda Ross plays Patrice, another member of the support group, who sporadically entertains delusions that her son is alive. She co-starred in a John Sayles film last year called "Go For Sisters" that bears passing similarity to "Lila & Eve." But it takes a director as talented as Sayles to bring rhythm and richness to this kind of genre material. Stone's not there yet.

When you're making a case against a grave wrongdoer, it's imperative that your hands be completely clean. The merest trace of dishonesty or loose ethics can give the perpetrator undeserved cover. Amy Berg's controversial child-abuse-in-Hollywood documentary "An Open Secret," relegated to a weeklong run at Laemmle's Music Hall, suffers from lapses in judgment that draw attention away from the serious problem of boys being preyed on by the agents, managers and producers who should be protecting them.

Berg tells the story of one victim through extended interviews with his parents at their family home in the Midwest. This footage is presented in such a way that we clearly believe their son committed suicide as a result of his molestation, only to find out in a coda that he survived and is now recovering appreciably. Similarly, it is only late in her interview with the former head of a SAG/AFTRA children's committee that she unmasks his pedophilia by having a former victim call him on speakerphone to entrap him while she records the exchange. It is not clear from Berg's editing whether each party's words and reactions are properly synchronized.

There is a place for persuasive filmmaking. Gabriela Cowperthwaite's brilliant 2013 documentary "Blackfish," for example, established beyond doubt the evil and criminal duplicity of SeaWorld. But the documentarian cannot put her own thumb on the scale. So when Berg sets her closing credits to a subtlety-free song called "A Call to Arms," she diminishes her own case. She also wastes the opportunity to investigate the most current scientific thinking on pedophilia as "a disorder, not a crime" (as a recent NY Times headline put it). One may advert to that possibility while still recognizing a fundamental difference from other disorders that affect only the individual. Berg's not interested in any of that. "An Open Secret" is tawdry muckraking that looks cheap and makes you feel dirty for watching it.

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