Review: ‘The Secret: Dare to Dream,’ starring Katie Holmes and Josh Lucas

August 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Katie Holmes and Josh Lucas in “The Secret: Dare to Dream” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

“The Secret: Dare to Dream” 

Directed by Andy Tennant

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New Orleans area and partially in Nashville, the dramatic film “The Secret: Dare to Dream” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos) presenting the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash:  A widowed mother who is financially struggling meets a stranger with a secret who upends her life in ways that she does not expect.

Culture Audience: “The Secret: Dare to Dream” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted but formulaic movies that promote the power of positive thinking.

Katie Homes, Aidan Pierce Brennan, Sarah Hoffmeister and Chloe Lee in “The Secret: Dare to Dream” (Photo by Alfonso Pompo Bresciani/Lionsgate)

“The Secret: Dare to Dream” is the type of movie where it’s very easy to predict how it’s going to end, even if people don’t know that this scripted drama is inspired by Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling self-help book “The Secret.” Yes, the movie is utterly formulaic and a little preachy, but it’s elevated by the very good performances of stars Katie Holmes and Josh Lucas, who have utterly believable chemistry together as two people who change each other’s lives for the better. The rest of the cast members also do a fine job of bringing this heart-warming story to life.

Directed by Andy Tennant (who also worked with Lucas on the 2002 romantic comedy “Sweet Home Alabama”), “The Secret: Dare to Dream” hits a lot of the same beats as movies that might end up on Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel. But what separates “The Secret: Dare to Dream” from movies that are usually made for television is how terrific the casting is in “The Secret: Dare to Dream.” Viewers of this movie can recognize parts of themselves or people they know as the story unfolds.

The movie’s screenplay by Bekah Brunstetter, Tennant and Rick Parks could have been ruined if the wrong actors had been cast. But everyone brings an authenticity to their roles in a way that it looks they’re portraying people who really are like these characters in the real world. The cast members don’t come across as just actors saying their lines in a contrived and fake environment. (It also helps that the movie, which primarily takes place in Louisiana, was shot on location.)

“The Secret: Dare to Dream” begins with the arrival of a tropical storm called Hazel that’s ready to batter the New Orleans area. Miranda Wells (played by Holmes), a widowed mother of three, is at her job on the day that the storm is supposed to hit that night. Miranda (whose husband died more than five years ago) is the manager of a restaurant called Middendorf’s, a casual mid-sized eatery that’s owned by Tucker Middendorf (played by Jerry O’Connell), who comes from a wealthy family in the area.

Miranda has made a good deal that day to buy some late-season soft-shell seafood, and she’s praised for it by Tucker, who happens to be her boyfriend of about three years. Miranda has an early-afternoon dentist appointment, where she gets some disappointing news: She has to have a root canal, but since she opted out of dental coverage for her health insurance, she’s going to have to pay the out-of-pocket expenses, which she can’t really afford right now.

How bad are Miranda’s financial problems? Before she went to the dentist’s office, she’s seen calling her bank to tell them to reverse the charges on a bounced check, which is a check that she probably didn’t think would be presented to the bank as quickly as it was. The receptionist at the dentist office notices that the cost of the root canal is distressing to Miranda, so she asks Miranda if Tucker might be willing to cover the expenses. Miranda quickly dismisses that idea, “because tings are complicated because he’s my boss.”

Meanwhile, a handsome stranger from Nashville is seen checking into a nearby boutique hotel. His name is Bray Johnson (played by Lucas), who is a mechanical engineering professor at Vanderbilt University. Bray, who has an easygoing and friendly manner, tells the hotel’s front-desk employee Sloane (played by Sydney Tennant) that it’s his first time in New Orleans.

What Bray doesn’t tell her is why he’s traveled to New Orleans: He needs to deliver a legal-sized envelope to Miranda. (What’s in the envelope isn’t revealed in the movie until much later in the story.) Bray notices that Sloane is reading LSAT tutorial books to prepare for law school applications. Bray and Sloane talk about her goal to become an attorney, and he wishes her good luck.

Bray is carrying the envelope with him when he stops by Miranda’s house unannounced in the afternoon. She isn’t home, but her son Greg (played by Aidan Pierce Brennan), Miranda’s middle child who’s about 11 or 12 years old, is there because he’s taken a sick day home from school. Greg is out by a backyard creek when Bray first sees him, and they have a pleasant conversation where Greg mentions that his late father was an inventor.

Greg also seems to be interested in mechanics and science, so mechanical engineering professor Bray and Greg form an instant bond. Greg tells Bray that Miranda will be home after 4 p.m., so he can come back then to deliver the envelope. Greg also asks Bray not to tell Miranda that they spoke because Greg isn’t allowed to talk to strangers. Bray promises to keep their conversation a secret.

Meanwhile, Miranda’s mother-in-law Bobby Wells (played by Celia Weston), calls Miranda to express how worried she is about the leaky roof in Miranda’s house because of the impending storm. Miranda’s declines Bobby’s offer for Miranda and Miranda’s kids to stay at Bobby’s house during the storm. It’s pretty clear early on in the film that Miranda has a pattern of being too proud to ask for help, even when her life is falling apart.

Miranda picks her other two children up from school: teenage Missy (played Sarah Hoffmeister) and Bess, also known as Bessie (played by Chloe Lee, in her film debut), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Missy is cranky and on edge because her upcoming 16th birthday party is going to be held on the same day as a party thrown by fellow classmate who can afford to have food trucks at her party. Missy thinks her own party will be a flop because her schoolmates will prefer to go to the fancier party.

Missy resents that Miranda doesn’t make enough money for them to be financially secure. Missy has wanted to get a computer for quite some time, but Miranda can’t afford it. By contrast, Bess is a sweet-natured kid who doesn’t cause much of a fuss.

While Miranda is driving home with her two daughters, Missy and Miranda get into an argument, which causes Miranda to be distracted from the road. Miranda ends up having a minor fender-bender accident with the car in front of her. The accident causes the front bumper on Miranda’s car to fall off. And who’s the driver of the other car? It’s Bray, who’s not as upset by the car accident as most people would be.

Miranda makes profuse apologies to Brady and mentions that she has car insurance, but her policy has a $5,000 deductible that she can’t afford. Bray sees how upset she is and kindly offers to fix the front bumper for free. Miranda can’t believe her good luck, so she says that Bray can follow her back to her house and work on the car there.

When Bray follows Miranda to the house, he’s surprised to see it’s the same house that he was at earlier in the day, and he realizes that the woman who hit his car is Miranda. Bray decides to wait to give the envelope to Miranda, since she obviously has other things on her mind. Bray sees Greg again, but they both pretend that they’re meeting for the first time.

When Bray introducers himself, he tells Miranda and the kids a little bit more about himself, but he doesn’t mention the envelope. While Bray (with Greg watching) works on the car outside, Missy looks up information about Bray online, and sees that his story about being a Vanderbilt University professor is true. She shows the proof to Miranda, and they both feel a little better knowing that Bray seems to be honest about who he is.

When it starts to get dark and the storm begins, Miranda invites Bray to stay for dinner. Bray’s almost Zen-like demeanor prompts Missy to ask Bray if he’s a Buddhist. He says no, but he does spout some platitudes that indicate that he’s a deep thinker who believes that thoughts can be turned into reality.

For example, Bray tells Bess: “We have to be careful because we get what we expect.” And in the kitchen, when he shows the kids how magnets have unseen forces, he says that people’s thoughts are like magnets: “The more you think about something, the more you draw it to you.”

The kids all want to have pizza for dinner, but Miranda says no. But just as Bray is telling them that thoughts will manifest themselves into reality, he asks the kids to imagine what kind of pizza they want. They give vivid descriptions. And then, like clockwork, during the rainstorm, a pizza delivery guy is at their door with some pizza.

It’s not magic. It turns out that Tucker had ordered the pizza as a thoughtful surprise. Miranda thinks it’s a lucky coincidence. Bray has a look on his face as if he thinks it’s not a coincidence. (And he utters this line later in the movie; “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”) Bray and Miranda also look at each other in a way that maybe something else is happening between them that’s more than politeness between two strangers.

Through a series of events, Bray ends up staying in New Orleans longer than expected. He also opens up to Miranda about his relationship status. Bray, who has no children, went through a painful divorce more than 10 years ago because his ex-wife cheated on him. He also hints that he went through another devastating event, which is shown in a flashback.

Meanwhile, Tucker notices that Miranda and Bray are getting closer as platonic friends, so he makes moves to assert his romantic relationship with Miranda, who doesn’t seem to be in a rush to get married again. Bobby approves of Tucker being Miranda’s boyfriend because Tuck is nice to Miranda and the kids and because Tuck is rich. Bobby wants her grandchildren to have a more financially stable life, so she tells Miranda not to doing anything that would ruin Miranda’s relationship with Tucker.

And what exactly is in that envelope? Although the relationships are easy to predict in this movie, what’s in the envelope isn’t that easy to predict. But when it’s revealed, it will permanently alter the lives of all the main characters in this story. The mystery of what’s in the envelope is another reason why “The Secret: Dare to Dream” will keep viewers hooked into finding out what will happen.

The movie is capably directed and the scenic cinematography is good, but the movie’s main appeal is with the human relationships and how personalities are realistically portrayed. When Bray starts sharing his life philosophies and gets some of the people in the story to begin thinking about their lives differently, he doesn’t come across as “holier than thou” or a “too good to be true” preacher type. His emotional pain is just beneath the surface of his calm demeanor, and Lucas does a great job in making Bray a very believable human being who’s learned a lot from his life experiences.

Holmes gives a richly nuanced performance as a single mother who wants to be a “superwoman” to the outside world, whereas on the inside she’s also in emotional pain, as well as vulnerable and fearful of how she’s going to get through life. Miranda doesn’t pretend to be perfect, but she learns some lessons about how asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. Part of the movie’s obvious message is not about what problems people have but how they deal with those problems.

A movie doesn’t have to be Oscar-worthy to be enjoyable. Many times, it’s about how convincing the movie is in drawing viewers into its world and how a movie makes you feel after you’ve seen it. “The Secret: Dare to Dream” sticks to a certain formula that people can expect, especially in how the story ends, but the movie’s positive message makes it an uplifting ride along the way.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions released “The Secret: Dare to Dream” on digital and VOD on July 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Brahms: The Boy II,’ starring Katie Holmes, Owain Yeoman and Christopher Convery

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Katie Holmes in “Brahms: The Boy II” (Photo courtesy of STX)

“Brahms: The Boy II” 

Directed by William Brent Bell

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, the horror sequel “Brahms: The Boy II” has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A family with a troubled past moves to a new home and finds a doll that seems to be wreaking havoc on their lives.

Culture Audience: “Brahms: The Boy II” will appeal mostly to horror fans who like stories that aren’t too gory and follow a predictable formula.

Owain Yeoman, Katie Holmes and Christopher Convery star in “Brahms: The Boy II” (Photo courtesy of STX)

Around the time that Warner Bros. Pictures’ 2013 horror blockbuster “The Conjuring” became a hit that spawned sequels and the “Annabelle” spinoffs, independent film company STX decided it wanted to have its own horror franchise about an evil doll. Instead of a female doll, it would be a male doll. The result was 2016’s “The Boy,” a laughable stinker that made $64 million worldwide on a $10 million production budget, according to Box Office Mojo. Apparently, the profit margin was good enough that STX went ahead with this slightly better but still terrible sequel “Brahms: The Boy II,” which is one of many disappointing horror films that have been released in 2020.

You don’t have to see “The Boy” to know what’s going on in “Brahms: The Boy II,” which were both directed by William Brent Bell and written by Stacey Menear. In “The Boy,” American nanny Greta Evans (played by Lauren Cohan), who’s living in England, is hired by wealthy elderly couple Mr. and Mrs. Wheelshire (played by Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle) to take care of their underage son Brahms, only to find out that the boy is really a doll. The doll is named after the couple’s real-life son Brahms, who is said to have died under mysterious circumstances several years before. Greta thinks the job is weird, but she stays because she needs the money.

Slowly but surely, she finds out that not only can the doll move on its own, but strange things also start happening around the house, which is an isolated mansion in the woods. (Of course it is.) Even when she finds out that the doll is probably possessed by an evil spirit, she stays and starts to feel oddly protective of the doll. Family secrets are revealed, and there’s a plot twist/showdown that ranks as one of the most ludicrous in horror movies of the 2010s.

What happened in “The Boy” is referenced in “Brahms: The Boy II” with an update on something involving the plot twist at the end of the first movie. What makes “Brahms: The Boy II” a slight improvement over its predecessor is that the people’s reactions to the sinister doll are much more realistic. However, the movie’s screenplay is utterly predictable, using many of the same tropes and plot devices as dozens of other horror flicks about “fill in the blank” being possessed by an evil spirit.

In “Brahms: The Boy II,” housewife Liza (played by Katie Holmes) is an American living in London with her British businessman husband Sean (played by Owain Yeoman) and their son Jude (played by Christopher Convery), who has an American accent. (The movie doesn’t say how long this family has been living in England.) Sean’s work requires him to often be away from home, where Liza homeschools Jude.

One night, while Sean is away on business, two masked and armed intruders break into the home and attack Liza, while Jude witnesses the whole thing and can only stand by helplessly. The crime has been so traumatizing that Liza becomes depressed and distant from Sean, and Jude becomes mute. Jude’s therapist Dr. Lawrence (played by Anjali Jay) says that it’s unknown if Jude will speak again, but his chances of speaking again will increase if his parents create a positive environment and keep encouraging him to speak.

In an effort to start a new life, Liza agrees to Sean’s idea that the family move to the country. They choose a guest house on a vast property in the woods. On their first day in their new home, the family is walking in the woods when Jude finds a boy doll buried under a pile of leaves. The doll is buried with a list of 10 typewritten rules that include instructions that the doll cannot be left alone.

When Jude shows Liza and Sean the doll, they don’t say too much about it, because during the family’s walk in the woods, they’ve discovered the main house, which is a deserted mansion. Sean and Liza marvel at the mansion from the outside (even though it’s obviously in a state of neglect) and say they wish they could live there instead of the guest house.

Back at the guest house, Liza cleans up the doll and notices that it’s been broken before and put back together. Jude has immediately latched on to the doll and carries it with him wherever he goes. When Sean asks Jude what the doll’s name is, mute Jude (who communicates in writing) says the doll’s name is Brahms. How did Jude come up with that name? Jude says that doll told him that his name is Brahms. Although Sean privately admits to Liza that the doll is creepy, he and Liza both think that Jude could use it as a therapy doll that could help Jude to talk again.

Shortly after the family’s arrival, they meet the groundskeeper Joseph, nicknamed Joe (played by Ralph Ineson), and his German Shepherd named Oz. The dog immediately begins growling at the sight of the doll. Of course, the family doesn’t think anything of it and assumes that it’s the animal’s natural reaction to a strange-looking toy.

Meanwhile, when Jude is alone, he goes back out in the woods and finds a wardrobe with more of the doll’s clothes buried in the same area where he found the doll. Why did Jude go back in the woods to find this wardrobe? Brahms told him to do it.

Jude’s insistence in treating the doll like a real person who talks to him reaches a point where Brahms gets his own seat and meals at the dining table when the family eats together. Under other circumstances, the parents would look crazy for making these accommodations, but the story at least made it believable that these parents are so desperate for their son to talk again that they’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen, even if it means pretending that the doll is their son’s imaginary friend. Because the stakes are higher for the family in the movie (compared to a nanny who can just quit the job), it’s easier to see why the parents want take a chance by keeping the doll, if they think that it will help their son.

After Jude discovers a creepy doll mask (which is part of “The Boy” movie) and puts it on, he begins talking again, much to the delight of his parents. But his attachment to Brahms becomes even more disturbing when he tells his parents that they can never leave Brahms alone.

Meanwhile, strange things start happening. Joe’s dog Oz has disappeared. Liza notices that when she’s alone with the doll, it appears to move from one place to another when she’s not looking. It’s déjà vu to what the nanny experienced with the same doll in “The Boy.”

Feeling isolated and increasingly fearful, Liza invites a female British relative and her husband and their underage children for a visit. The relative’s kids are a bullying son and a pleasant younger daughter. When the bully begins taunting Jude over his attachment to Brahms and starts calling Jude crazy, let’s just say that things don’t go well for anyone who tries to hurt Brahms.

The cast of actors do a satisfactory job with the script that they’ve been given. The angelic-looking Convery is well-cast as Jude, since he’s able to portray the horror of an innocent soul being overtaken by evil. However, the way he looks is so similar to the Damien Thorn character in 1976’s “The Omen” that it’s bound to get comparisons.

The biggest problem with “Brahms: The Boy II” is that there is almost nothing in the movie that is fresh or original. It’s easy to know how the movie is going to end once secrets are revealed. The scares in the movie aren’t too gory, because the terror is more psychological and about what you don’t see instead of what you do see.

The ending has a few grotesque images that just look kind of freaky instead of truly terrifying. Although the screenplay and acting of “Brahms: The Boy II” are superior to “The Boy,” the movie still lazily wallows in overused clichés. And, like most horror flicks, it leaves open the possibility for a sequel. You’ve been warned.

STX released “Brahms: The Boy II” in U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020.

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