While not a laugh-out-loud comedy or the sort of schtick you’d expect from star Rainn Wilson (The Office), this film takes an extremely dark comedic turn.
Starring: Abigail Esmena, Fionn Whitehead, Graham Lutes, Jack Grazer, Kate Duncan, McKenna Christine Poe, Mena Suvari, Rainn Wilson, Richard Fike, Shannon Cogan
Synopsis: While stealing money to help their ailing mother (Mena Suvari), teenage brothers Matt and Joey (Fionn Whitehead and Jack Dylan Grazer) are surprised by Hamby (Rainn Wilson), a security guard who chases them down and is then caught. Over the next few days, Joey and Hamby forge an uneasy relationship. Hamby tells Joey that he will shut up if Joey releases him. But Hamby harbors another secret, one that will threaten Joey and his family, in this twisting cat-and-mouse thriller.
- In theaters: January 15, 2021
- On DVD or streaming: March 16, 2021
- Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mena Suvari, Rainn Wilson
- Director: Alex McAulay
- Studio: Saban Films
- Suspended Sex
- Topics: Siblings
- Running time: 83 minutes
- MPAA Rating: R
- MPAA Statement: Language, Some Violence, Teen Drug Use, and a Sexual Reference
- Last update: June 2, 2022
In DON’T TELL A SOUL, 14-year-old Joey (Jack Dylan Grazer) lives with Matt (Fionn Whitehead), his bullying older brother, and Carol (Mena Suvari), their couch potato and lung disease. cancer. Matt recruits Joey on a mission and forces him to break into an elderly woman’s house, which is being smoked out, and steal her secret stash of money. Joey is successful, but security guard Hamby (Rainn Wilson) discovers them and chases them. In the process, Hamby falls into a disused 20-foot shaft and breaks his ankle. Matt wants to leave it at that, but Joey isn’t so sure. He sneaks out to get food and medicine for Hamby, though he fears what might happen if Hamby escapes. However, Hamby is much more than anyone realizes.
Fionn Whitehead plays a perfect jerk in “Don’t Tell a Soul”, arguably one of the bossiest older brothers imaginable, and that’s no exaggeration. Matt (17) may not be the most original representation of that archetype. But he defines himself by more than just the wardrobe of a knit hat pulled down to furrowed brows and beanies slamming his wife over a persistently swollen chest.
Matt’s threat comes from Whitehead’s arrogant swag with a hostile grin that begs them to be defeated. Wounded as a way of rebelling against the realities of life in a lower-class world, Matt inflates his sense of power by bullying his younger brother Joey. His desire to humiliate a helpless brother gives Matt most of his motivation. Whitehead, however, enjoys Matt’s vague villainy, as he sharpens a light sense of sympathy so that he can have a “this is how brothers behave” excuse to dish out hard love. The touch of compassion Whitehead injects suggests that Matt may be suffering in part from a perverse sense of “man of the house” responsibility.
Matt Full of Scheme
Matt’s latest sibling scheme sees him pressure 14-year-old Joey into stealing money from an elderly woman’s secluded home. Matt cannot rob the house himself because it is being fumigated. Matt instead puts a gas mask and all the risk on Joey by forcing him to commit the crime. He reminds his brother that their cancer-stricken mother needs the money to get out of a mountain of medical bills. He doubles that desperation with his fear of Matt, and Joey eagerly accepts.
Their family’s financial problems take on a more pressing matter when security guard Dave Hamby catches the two teens in the act. After successfully stealing the loot, it seems that the luck has run out. Only it’s over for Hamby, not for the brothers.
While chasing Matt and Joey through a forest, Hamby falls into an old well. For Matt, this unexpected situation is an outcome he could only dream of. The lone witness to the robbery now lies in a hole 20 feet deep, unable to alert authorities. This is another nightmare for Joey. He does not possess the insensitivity of his brother to let a man die a long death. But what should Joey do if “the right thing to do” can lead to more hardship for his family, and his brother can throw him in the same hole if he tries?
Don’t Tell A Soul
Say what you will about “Don’t Tell a Soul,” but that’s a solid “what would you do?” preparing for a grim dilemma. This is not a clear case of right and wrong. Joey feels his back against two walls: his terrifying brother and his family’s deep guilt, adding a little Les Miserables element to cover up his gray heist. Each option for what to do has obvious pros and cons, but the consequences are equally unappealing no matter what Joey chooses.
As intriguing as it may be for morally minded viewers to see Joey ruefully fighting back against the threat of his brother’s vengeful wrath, viewers unenthralled by its premise or its portrayal may not be moved. “Don’t Tell a Soul” initially sets its plot on the stove to simmer so it doesn’t explode. For any person content with waiting for the clock on Joey’s unusual coming-of-age countdown, someone else will want a more concrete cliffhanger.
Neither side finds satisfaction; however, as halfway through “Don’t Tell a Soul” folds into a wrinkle that opens an accidental back door to Joey’s quest for a solution. Joey’s confusion could not change and fail forever. But the “Don’t Tell a Soul” story transitions into “Hollywood Movie” mode, where Deus’ dominoes begin to fall at a steady pace, raising the stakes significantly at the cost of the relative realism that passes. Those bored with Joey’s inner conflict get the action they crave. The rest of us wonder how a previously simple idea can get wilder.
Drama over Thriller
I preferred “Don’t Tell a Soul” when it was a drama over when it was a thriller. The sacrifices writer/director Alex McAulay makes so that his film can use both labels undermines the integrity of the fiction. That still leaves “Don’t Tell a Soul” in better shape than its comparable peers. A small but slick cast that includes up-and-coming actor Jack Dylan Grazer, the ever-reliable Rainn Wilson, and the newly crowned Queen B (i.e. the movie) Mena Suvari do the work it takes to give their characters believable encouragement. Kentucky’s stark locations provide a Midwestern feel that many classic movies can’t match. In short, there’s a lot to like about how “Don’t Tell a Soul” handles its DTV indie chilling activities. I just think your solution to a conclusion is more of a handy evasion than a clever twist.
What Parents Need To Know
Parents should know that Don’t Tell a Soul is an emotional thriller, well done, with elements of black humor; deals with violence and bullying. The violence can be intense, including guns and shooting, killing, brutal fighting (punching, bloodied face, hitting the wall, choking, strangling, biting, beating with blunt objects, knocking a teenager unconscious, etc.), bullying, bullying someone trapped in a deep hole, and more. The language is also extremely strong and frequent, with numerous uses of “f–k”, “s–t”, “a–hole”, “p—y”, “bitch”, etc. on a teen party gets drunk and smokes cigarettes, a teenage character smokes cigarettes regularly, and a younger teen tries marijuana (and coughs violently). A character dies of lung cancer from secondhand smoke. While there isn’t much sexual content, a teenage girl would do sexual favors for money, and a pin-up photo of a topless woman on the wall. Jack Dylan Grazer, Fionn Whitehead, and Rainn Wilson co-star.
Talk to your kids about…
- Families can talk about the violence of Don’t Tell a Soul. Is it meant to be shocking or exciting? How does the film show that violence is passed on from father to son?
- How is Harassment Displayed? Is the answer here effective? What are other possible responses to bullying?
- The film is about the choice between making money or saving someone’s life. Which choice would you make? Why?
- How is teenage drinking portrayed? Are you glorified? Are there consequences? Why does it matter?
- What are the consequences of smoking cigarettes in this film?
Is It Good?
This sharp and emotional thriller focuses on just four characters and a few spare locations, yet ironically unfolds a surprising amount of shock and layering. Don’t Tell a Soul, a stunning directorial debut from screenwriter Alex McAulay (Flower), is essentially a portrait of violence handed down from father to son. Every character here is a victim and ultimately a perpetrator of violence, and yet they are all just looking for love. Joey’s relationship with Hamby becomes somewhat of a father-son relationship, though he constantly alternates between revealing and hiding, threatening and comforting.
Wilson gives the most astute performance in the film; it’s almost like playing chess. It makes viewers understand why Joey might like or trust him. And Grazer, best known for It, It Chapter Two and Shazam!, offers another solid enjoyable twist here. It’s hard to think of Whitehead as the bully; he’s so cheeky it’s easy to hate him, but he bears his pain effectively. Beginning with a quote from Jane Austen (“What strange creatures brothers are!”), McAulay’s cinema is punchy but also scruffy, falling back into a wintery semblance of dead leaves. The script may not quite hold up, but it certainly feels unexpected and moving.