Producers: Chris Mangano and Merry-Kay Poe   Director: Alex McAulay   Screenplay: Alex McAulay   Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mena Suvari, Rainn Wilson and McKenna Christine Poe, McKenna Christian Poe, Seth Poe, Richard Fike and Abigail Froehle   Distributor: Saban Films 

Grade: B-

One might describe Alex McAulay’s debut feature as a coming-of-age thriller; and one can imagine it having served as one of those pulpy movies of the week that broadcast networks favored in the seventies.  As such “Don’t Tell a Soul” holds one’s interest over its brief eighty-three minute running-time, though it suffers from almost amusing issues of plausibility and one terribly overwrought performance. 

The protagonist is fourteen-year old Joey (Jack Dylan Grazer), who lives with his mother Carol (Mena Suvari) and older brother Matt (Fionn Whitehead).  The boys’ father is dead—we will learn that he had lung cancer, but died of a gunshot wound.  Carol is ill with lung cancer too (repeated shots of a factory smokestack belching out fumes down the block from the family’s house are obviously meant to indicate the source of the illness) , and is burdened with huge medical bills.

That is what supposedly prompts Matt, a volatile, reckless seventeen-year old with a nasty streak, to bully Joey into joining him in the robbery of an elderly neighbor whose house is being treated for some sort of infestation.  As they escape with a canister of cash, they’re accosted by a man (Rainn Wilson) wearing a security guard’s uniform who chases them into the woods.  But he stumbles into a deep hole (man-made, but to what purpose is unclear) and breaks his ankle in the process.  Matt compels Joey to follow him back to the house with the loot, leaving the injured man behind.

Joey’s haunted by what they’ve done, and goes back alone to see about the fellow, who tells him his name is Hamby and begs him to call for help.  Joey is torn, caught between his desire to assist Hamby and the threat of retaliation from Matt if he does.  The result is the emergence of a curious sort of friendship between the boy and the trapped man: Joey brings Hamby food and even a walkie-talkie so that they can converse, while still resisting the man’s pleas to rescue him.  The situation is complicated when Matt begins spending the stolen money on girls and parties and grows increasingly brutal: he actually tries to kill Hamby, and threatens to hurt Joey physically or perhaps blame him for the crime and turn him in to the police.

At this point McAulay throws a far-fetched twist into the plot that turns the movie into an oddball buddy story in which Joey and Hamby form an unholy kid-and-surrogate-father alliance.  Wilson and Grazer (who was Freddy Freeman in “Shazam!”) are both so invested in their characters that they almost pull McAulay’s contrivance off; unfortunately Whitehead is so over-the-top as Matt (has been from the very beginning, in fact, but is even more unbelievable when he turns into an Eddie Haskell type toward the close) that he undermines their delicate routine.  A further twist involving Carol, whom Mena Suvari has until then played as a one-note suffering soul, strains credulity even further. 

Nonetheless the back-and-forth between Grazer and Wilson is sufficiently clever, and their performances so engaging, that the movie is watchable to the end, despite the stumbles.  Shot in Kentucky, it boasts decent technical work from cinematographer Guillermo Garza, production designer Norá Takács and Ben Baudhuin, though the droning score by Joseph Stephens comes across as unimaginative.

Like so many of those seventies made-for-TV potboilers, “Don’t Tell a Soul” is basically a guilty pleasure, but still a pleasure, though a distinctly minor-league one.