One of the challenges in my criticism has been to balance a conversational tone with thematic clarity. If I’m chatting about movies in person, I tend to swing wild from praise to critique even within a sentence, but – understandably – people tend their reviews to be somewhat more focused. This is a challenge when you come across a film like Don’t Tell, a new Australian film about child abuse, which works and doesn’t work in about equal measure. Most of why it doesn’t work is precisely because it lacks the kind of thematic clarity I’m talking about prioritising in my reviews. This is a film torn between framing itself an inspirational tale about overcoming adversity and as a realistic courtroom drama; while each half is executed well, they clash badly with one another.
The first half of Don’t Tell centres on the harm caused by child abuse. We’re introduced to Lyndal (Sara West), a young woman clearly damaged from her traumatic childhood. Director Tori Garrett adroitly bleeds flashbacks from her past as a Toowoomba Prep student into the present day. The subjective perspective draws us into Lyndal’s perspective, and it’s impossible not to empathise with her plight. Simultaneously, we meet Stephen Roche (Aden Young), a lawyer whose representation of another victim of abuse ends in tragedy.
The introduction primes us to expect a David-vs-Goliath quest for justice. Roche, as you’d expect, comes to represent Lyndal in her suit against Toowoomba Prep and the Anglican Church. The carefully-paced screenplay doesn’t rush to the courthouse. We’re given time to understand the local context (as someone who grew up in Toowoomba at the time the film is set, the film is incredibly authentic), time to get to know the interested parties. Mediation meetings between Lyndal’s lawyers and the Church affirm that Lyndal isn’t interested in a payout – even a six figure sum – she’s interested in an acknowledgement of and apology for her suffering.
So far, so good. The film is gorgeously shot, well-acted, and readied for an epic legal showdown between an innocent victim and a monstrous institution that refuses to even admit her suffering occurred. Even better, we’ve got the ever-impressive Jack Thompson on board as Bob Myers, assisting Roche as counsel. Time to settle in for an old-fashioned fight for justice.
Except that’s instantly derailed by the Church’s admission that Lyndal was abused at Toowoomba Prep. It’s a jarring, stunning admission. It makes sense in context – Don’t Tell is based on a true story, and this is presumably how things played out; it’s much easier for the Church to defend themselves by claiming they were unaware of the abuse rather than trying to pretend it didn’t occur. But it takes all the winds out of our sails, because we’d been geared to expect a moral fight, not a legal one. Now the stakes are entirely down to how this might affect the legal system, how much money Lyndal might be able to win: important, no doubt, but lacking the emotional appeal we’d been led to expect.
Don’t Tell never quite recovers from this gear change. Don’t get me wrong, the courtroom showdown that follows maintains the precise pacing of the first half. There are enough revelations to keep things interesting without toppling over into inauthenticity. But while the stakes of the court case are significant – indeed, as a teacher at a Catholic school, our mandatory reporting guidelines are directly (and correctly) affected by such cases – they don’t resonate with the audience. It’s like we’ve suddenly switched from Philadelphia to Anatomy of a Murder; both excellent films, but they don’t play nicely together.
That immiscibility comes to a head in the film’s misguided climax, which tosses in a twist to make the former Toowoomba Prep principal not just negligent, but predatory and clumsily attempts to frame the results of the court case as inspirational. The final intertitle – reinforced by the lyrics of a Missy Higgins song recorded for the film – advises the audience “If you have suffered child abuse, and someone says don’t tell… don’t listen.” It’s almost as bad as The Imitation Game’s “Today we call them ‘computers.’”
The take home message here isn’t – or shouldn’t be – that child abuse can be prevented by speaking out. Indeed, that message seems to (unintentionally) direct blame towards prepubescent victims of such abuse, who aren’t equipped to speak out against abusive authority figures. The entire crux of the court case rests on the (spoilers) revelation that Toowoomba Prep administration were aware of the possibility of abuse and did nothing about it. Trying to reduce the complexity of such institutional negligence to “just tell!” does the story and the film a disservice.
Which is unfortunate, because so much of Don’t Tell works incredibly well. I could have spent hundreds of words praising the colour grading, which lifts Lyndal out from her surroundings like a fragile flame. Or praising Thompson’s gruff, distinctive performance, or how cleverly the filmmakers use the Toowoomba setting. But I can’t offer a coherent thematic focus here. Don’t Tell is an excellent film with major flaws, undone by its own lack of focus.