It is not often that the elderly are featured as protagonists, yet, The Secret Friend, which is based off a short story by Brazilian writer João Silvério Trevisan, breaks conventional molds by telling a story of an independent, recently widowed woman. The short film looks at the life of Anna Marshall (Viola Harris), who lives in the house she and her husband shared for 40 years. We see early on that Anna is quite independent and although she is friendly, she doesn’t seem to have a strong connection with the people around her. At the beginning of the film she is visited by her neighbour, Julie (played by character actor Siobhan Fallon), who brings over cake but doesn’t have much else to offer by way of company, other than awkward silence and canned responses. The film takes an interesting turn when Anna begins to receive mysterious calls at 3:30pm everyday. Anna first reacts with fear, anger and curiosity, before she reaches a point of acceptance. She begins to tell the mysterious silent caller all about her day, and forms an odd sort of friendship. Although we never learn who the caller is, or their motives, this becomes less important when we see the positive effect they are having on Anna.
Viola Harris turns in a great performance, and gives Anna a layered persona. On the surface she appears to be a stereotypical cheerful and simple old woman, but in her moments of silence we see that she is struggling with a complexity of emotions. Anna’s silent caller acts as the audience’s window into her private life. We don’t know much about Anna, though we begin to learn more as her relationship with the mystery caller grows. She doesn’t seem to have any other friends, and appears to be estranged with her family (she mentions that her son has cancelled his plans to see her over the holidays). Their bizarre friendship invigorates Anna and brings her joy. She has someone who will listen to her and she becomes visibly happier: sharing her rediscovery of knitting, reading the caller stories, and getting motivated to stock her fridge. The film focuses on Anna’s capacity for trust in the face of grief and loneliness.
One of the most interesting aspects of this film, the third short feature from director Flavio Alves, is the way it depicts an independent senior citizen, particularly the difference between how we view Anna and how other characters in the film view her. Her neighbour, Julie, assumes that Anna is probably in need, and offers to help at any time; Anna is never shown reaching out to her. The only other person we see Anna have contact with is a man who works at the telephone company. He already has his preconceived ideas of what she wants, and refuses to listen to her actual requests. Ironically, the only one to actually listen to her is the secret caller, a complete stranger who never divulges any personal information. While this caller’s obsessive habit and loud mouth breathing are disturbing, Anna makes a choice to accept this person’s actions, and use them to her own advantage. She is thus able to happily form a bond with someone who never passes judgment or attempts to silence her.
I really enjoyed this strange little film. The story is charming, and manages to be equally sad and joyful. If you are looking for a pleasant way to spend 15 minutes, The Secret Friend is an ideal candidate for your time.