When we first glimpse Katie Holmes in the new inspirational drama The Secret: Dare to Dream (available for digital rental on July 31), she is holding a dead fish. She smiles at it, smells it, and then says, “Gorgeous.” Beauty—or maybe it’s value, really—is in the eye of the beholder. Whereas some of us see only a gross, reeking dead thing, Holmes’s character—harried and cash-strapped widow Miranda, who works for a fish market—regards a thing of wonder.
Similarly, some people might look at Dare to Dream and see nothing but noxious treacle. Others might thrill to the movie’s warm, only vaguely preachy fable-like tones. Make of it what you will.
Going in as a skeptic, I was surprised by how much I didn’t roll my eyes or groan at Dare to Dream. Directed and co-written with sensitivity by Andy Tennant, the film takes an unexpectedly low-key approach to fictionalizing the dubious teachings of the global phenomenon The Secret, a pseudo-scientific self-help book written by Rhonda Byrne. The messaging is still faintly intact—chiefly, that we can invite good fortune into our lives simply by willing it hard enough—but Dare to Dream blankets that sales pitch in an appealing, medium-worn texture. Fleeting but crucial moments in the film do actually approximate real human behavior, real human circumstances that could conceivably come to bear, if they’re not already, on people in the audience. Maybe it shouldn’t, but that counts for a lot.
Miranda Wells lives in coastal Louisiana with her three children—one teen, one tweenage, one still young enough to play with toy horses—and struggles to make ends meet. Her life, as depicted, is a humble pile of debts, incurred from the kind of regular bad luck that no doubt many know all too well. Miranda needs a root canal, but has no insurance. Her car bumper is knocked off in a fender bender, but she’ll have to pay a huge deductible before she gets any coverage for repairs. A dang tree falls through her kitchen roof. She is a quotidian Job, beset by everyday disasters and sudden financial setbacks, and it’s begun to affect her worldview. She’s weary, and as cynical as maybe any hero in a movie like this—vaguely spiritual, definitely influenced by the Nicholas Sparks cinematic universe—can ever get.
The movie gently guides her toward a realization, using as its implement a secretive (heh) engineering professor played by Josh Lucas. Bray Johnson (yes, Bray Johnson) is keyed into the supposed law of attraction that lies at the heart of The Secret’s principle; one must be an open and active receptor for good things, or else they will pass you by. As Bray and Miranda get to know one another following a chance encounter (or, was it?), this placid, wealthy man urges this poor, stressed woman to see the wonderful connectivity of things, the perhaps glorious design of perceived coincidence.
In the discrete environment of the movie, this plays out okay. Holmes gives a natural, amiable performance, even when having to deal with precocious, overly scripted child actors. She and Lucas have an easy chemistry, though it’s one that would maybe have been better left as platonic. There’s a cozy ramble to the movie, which really only once swerves into high drama. It’s otherwise an admirably mellow experience; there’s none of the grand sermon or epiphany of the more dogmatically faith-based films that this movie is stylistically aping. (And is no doubt trying to siphon paying customers from.) On those terms, this is mostly a sweet and seemingly well-meaning film, intending to give a sense of cosmic hope to people who feel despondent and without agency as they tumble through life.