US / 71 minutes / color / Just Greene, CBS Dir: Eric Laneuville Pr: Vanessa Greene Scr: Alfred Sole, Paul Monette Cine: Matthew F. Leonetti Cast: David Rasche, Paul Le Mat, Leaf Phoenix (i.e., Joaquin Phoenix), Kellie Martin, Barry Corbin, Paddi Edwards, Deborah Wakeham, Dean Wein, Kendall McCarthy, Eric Love, T.C. Ryan, Jeff O’Haco, Eric Harrison, Betty Bridges, David Raynr
Although its two lead protagonists are children, this is arguably not a children’s movie. I’m not sure it’s entirely a movie for adults, either, since, while it deals tangentially with adult subjects like sex and adultery and features a psychopath, it doesn’t do so in any especially analytic and/or graphic fashion. For similar reasons, it doesn’t really cut it as a family movie, either. Best just to take it on its own terms, then, and enjoy it as the lightweight piece that it is.
Of course, there are plenty of movies that have child protagonists yet aren’t aimed at children—or, on occasion, even suitable for a youthful audience. Writing now, late on a Sunday night, just off the top of my head, I can think immediately of a few noirish examples: The WINDOW (1949), HUNTED (1952), The YELLOW BALLOON (1953) and The WEAPON (1956). And then of course countless horror movies fit the bill, from Låt den Rätte Komma In (2008; vt Let the Right One In) to It (1990 TVM) and its 2017 remake. (You can add lots of other relevant examples from the horror genre in the comments if you like, but please forgive me in advance should I merely yawn.)
As well as carrying the main burden of the movie, the two kids are of interest in themselves. Leaf Phoenix, having spent the earlier part of his screen career performing under this name, later achieved far greater fame as Joaquin Phoenix, and is today regarded as among our finest screen actors. Meanwhile Kellie Martin, whose performance is actually more assured here than Phoenix’s, went on to become the star of countless TV movies and series, including one of my favorite guilty pleasures: alongside the immortal Clarence Williams III as Philby, she played mystery bookstore owner and amateur sleuth Samantha Kinsey in the Hallmark Channel’s Mystery Woman series of movies (pilot 2003, main run 2005–2007). She followed with the Hailey Dean Mysteries TV movies (2016–current), which I haven’t seen but hope to sample at some stage (though not for this site, I think).
Anyway, what of Secret Witness?
Young Drew Blackburn (Phoenix) is sent by his mom to a holiday island to spend a couple of weeks with his father Sandy (Rasche), who’s not just a divorced lawyer but a divorce lawyer. The upside of the visit is not just the surroundings but the chance to get together again with his best and oldest friend, Jenny Thomas (Martin), daughter of the habitually sozzled local sheriff (Corbin).
Jenny’s got a new game. She plans to write a sensational bestselling paperback that’ll “blow the lid off this island,” to which end she’s been snooping around at nights peeking through windows to find out who’s canoodling with people they shouldn’t oughter.
She’s also got a new friend for him to meet: homeless artist and bird conservationist Kurt (Le Mat), who lives in a self-built shack and subsists by bartering his paintings—and, although the kids don’t learn this until later, by breaking into houses and pillaging the contents of the owners’ fridges.
Drew enjoys the game until, one voyeuristic night, he catches his very own dad engaged in extracurricular activities with one of Dad’s clients, fabulously rich wannabe-divorcee Katie Corey (Wakeham).
Next day this beautiful blonde is discovered brutally murdered, and everything Dad does or says seems designed to arouse Drew’s suspicions that he’s Carey’s killer: Certainly he’s lying through his teeth about the nature of his relationship with the dead woman. Sheriff Thomas thinks otherwise: He reckons it has to be the kids’ friend Kurt, whom he arrests. Can the kids save their pal and bring the real killer to justice?
Cue some pounding chords.
Paddi Edwards, one of those actors whose face you immediately recognize without necessarily being able to put a name to it, plays Sandy’s housekeeper, Eunice. Eric Love has an intriguing part as a vagrant on the island who just might offer a Passing Tramp solution to the murder. Betty Bridges has a small role as local householder Mrs. Diamond who, with son Alan (Raynr), discovers Kurt busting into her fridge.
Really, this is one primarily for Phoenix and/or Martin completists. Otherwise it’s a moderately enjoyable way to spend seventy minutes, though you might find yourself better off catching one of the Mystery Woman movies.