Little Secrets

Evan Rachel Wood is a teenager trusted by neighborhood kids. (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Lurking beneath a sentimental surface and a treacly hearts-and-flowers score, Blair Treu's "Little Secrets" offers some genuine substance for youthful audiences.

It's just lamentable that some filmmakers still feel that in the name of wholesomeness, family pictures must take place in perfect-looking, picture-book worlds, fitted out with cutesy-poo kiddies providing comical touches.

Luckily, "Little Secrets" has a sure sense of reality at its core--if often not around its edges--and three talented and accomplished young actors, all TV series veterans, to head the cast, which includes an outstanding Vivica A. Fox in a key adult role.

Evan Rachel Wood stars as a beautiful, poised violinist with a bright future. The young teen lives with her loving parents in an upscale neighborhood, where the little kids so look up to her that she sets up a stand a couple of times a week during summer vacation to hear out their secrets. Invariably, she responds with words of reassurance.

Yet this summer will be different for a number of crucial reasons. First, Emily will acquire a baby sister before the season is over and face an audition with the local symphony orchestra. And then two brothers, Philip (Michael Angarano), 12, and David (David Gallagher),15, who has been off to summer camp, move next door.

Philip is a highly intelligent, challenging youngster whose initially edgy friendship with Emily leads him to tell her a secret that has unintended reverberations for her. She's also becoming jealous of her soon-too-arrive sibling, which makes her increasingly moody and irritable. The neighborhood's renowned secret-keeper has a secret herself that has begun to gnaw at her.

What Treu and writer Jessica Barondes are doing with considerable deftness is asking youngsters--and parents too--to think about the wisdom of keeping the kinds of secrets that do harm to one's self and others.

As Emily's spirits darken, we come to see her secret-keeper role in a new light. The children who trust her are innocents, but much of the advice Emily gives them involves how to cover up minor transgressions and thereby evade trouble. Emily can hardly be said to be corrupting kids, but she is encouraging falsehoods and the avoidance of responsibility.

These small fry are presented as a bunch of eccentric little mini-kooks, apparently for easy, affectionate laughs. It's artificial in effect yet fortunately does not fully undermine Treu's more serious, thought-provoking intentions. Besides conversations with Philip and, later, David, Emily has some discussions with her parents that ring true. Most authentic, however, is her relationship with her violin teacher (Fox), a most impressive role model and mentor.

There are moments when Wood as Emily is a tad actressy, a bit mannered, but she is a radiant talent who carries the film with quiet authority. She and Gallagher are most promising, but Angarano has a wryly quizzical, reflective personality that makes him seem already special. Its greeting card look and feel aside, "Little Secrets" is an otherwise worthy family entertainment.

MPAA rating: PG, for thematic elements. Times guidelines: suitable for all ages.

'Little Secrets'
Evan Rachel Wood...Emily
Michael Angarano...Philip
David Gallagher...David
Vivica A. Fox...Pauline

A Samuel Goldwyn Films presentation. Director Blair Treu. Producers Treu, Don Schain, Jessica Barondes. Screenplay Jessica Barondes. Cinematographer Brian Sullivan. Editor Jerry Stayner. Music Sam Cardon. Costumes Lanny Sikes. Production designer Gary Griffin Constable. Set decorator Ken Diamond. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

At selected theaters.