The open secret in Amy Berg’s documentary An Open Secret is that child actors are regularly molested by the adults—managers, publicists, producers—who help them launch their careers. Such an important subject deserves a serious, thoughtful film. Instead, it got Berg (Deliver Us From Evil, West of Memphis), who’s prone to all manner of cheesy manipulation. She begins the movie by interviewing a married couple, who lovingly recount their courtship (he was shy about asking her to the prom) and describe how happy they were as a family after their children were born. Given what the movie is about, their bliss can only be a prelude to misery, but how is it even relevant? Is child sexual abuse somehow less terrible when it happens to kids whose parents are unhappily married, or who didn’t get to go on a lot of fun vacations? And it gets worse: As this interview continues in stages over the course of the movie, Berg edits it in a way that’s designed to make the viewer assume that these parents’ child, who was abused, is now dead. But he isn’t. His actual fate (which is only tangentially related to any abuse) gets saved for a tacky surprise ending.
Thankfully, not everything in An Open Secret is that galling. Berg is solid on basic outrage, even if her techniques are frequently questionable, and her film functions as a call to arms regarding crimes that are too often swept under the rug. (Lest anyone miss this, the closing credits are accompanied by a maudlin ballad titled “A Call To Arms.” Sample lyrics: “This is a call to arms / A call to arms.”) Her primary villains are child talent manager Martin Weiss, who pled no contest three years ago to charges of molestation and served six months in prison; the founders of the early web TV company DEN (Digital Entertainment Network), who threw lavish parties at which one child actor claims he was drugged and raped; and Michael Harrah, a former head of SAG-AFTRA’s Young Performers’ Committee, who digs himself a big hole by repeatedly attempting to downplay the significance of child sexual abuse, treating it as just one of those things that happens in Hollywood.
Harrah’s appearances in An Open Secret are typical of how Berg constantly crosses the line with the best of intentions. It’s not clear for a long time that he’s a possible perpetrator of abuse, rather than just one of several industry veterans commenting on the subject; again, the material has been organized in a way that’s designed for cheap melodrama rather than for clarity. One could perhaps justify that choice as a means of demonstrating that people who appear trustworthy do bad things. But there’s no excuse for Berg cutting to an out-of-context reaction shot from Harrah’s interview when another interview subject accuses him of misconduct, while her voice continues on the soundtrack. Is his stricken facial expression actually in response to what we’re hearing? There’s no way to know. Later, a former child actor calls Harrah, on-camera, and they discuss Harrah’s abuse of him many years earlier. Did this call take place before or after Harrah was formally interviewed for the movie? Berg follows up with interview footage in which Harrah claims to remember nothing, but it’s not clear whether we’re seeing earlier “testimony” that was self-impeached on the phone or whether he’s now stonewalling even after he got nailed. Ignoring and/or obfuscating these matters undermines everything the film is trying to accomplish. Maybe it takes an approach this shoddy and meretricious to raise awareness, but if so, that’s a pretty sad state of affairs.