Secret Cutting (also known as Painful Secrets) is a 2000 television film directed by Norma Bailey, starring Kimberlee Peterson and Rhea Perlman, about a self-harming teenager, focusing on and her relation with family, friend and acquaintances. The story of the television film is based on the novel The Luckiest Girl in the World, which was written by Steven Levenkron. The film aired on the USA Network.
Shy and withdrawn Dawn Cottrell (Kimberlee Peterson) feels as if she is unable to assert any control over her life. She is a teenager who attempts to please the world but feels like she is unable to please anyone. Her mother, Joyce (Sean Young), is vindictive and seems to take out her anger on the rest of the family. As a result, Dawn feels like a failure and unable to please her parents. Unlike most people, who are able to express extreme emotions outwardly through words or through tears, the only way Dawn knows about for channeling her pain is through self-injury. This physical pain secures relief for Dawn from the emotional pain that she otherwise would be unable to release.
Her life consists of a continuous series of disappointments, as Dawn does not seem to have any real friends at school. Furthermore, her family is dysfunctional in the sense that her father, Russell (Robert Wisden) is unable to exhibit his emotions and Dawn's brother often hurls emotional abuse at his sister. Dawn finds solace in being able to control at least one thing in her life - her secret cutting.
When Dawn is asked by the "popular" crowd to design their float for the upcoming school carnival, she is initially pleased. However, the popular girls still victimize Dawn by calling her names and acting maliciously towards her. Her hopes for acceptance are shattered when she overhears the girls snickering and making fun of her in the girls' bathroom. Unable to deal with the pain, Dawn runs to a private corner and begins to cut herself, the only way she knows about to cope with what transpired.
Dawn feels that she is unable to articulate the troubles she experience at school to her parents. In fact, she is quite successful in hiding both the truth as well as her pain from her family. When Dawn tries to connect with them individually, Russell seems unable to handle any type of intimacy with his daughter and puts up an air of passivity. Joyce, on the other hand, is incapable of discussing anything without relating it back to herself, thus constantly taking the focus away from Dawn, where it should be. Tragically, Dawn attempts to find salvation from these two shaky worlds in the arms of a 19-year-old musician who, in reality, has little interest in finding out about her as a person, and only cares about how she can satisfy him physically.
Back at school, another series of humiliating experiences leaves Dawn running to find solitude so she can again numb her emotional pain by cutting. This time, her activities are discovered by Lorraine, another social outsider in the high school with whom she can relate. A well-meaning teacher, who observes blood on Dawn's blouse, calls Dawn's parents to the school to address the matter.
Humiliated that their façade as a perfect all-American family has been shattered, Dawn's mother again brings the focus of the situation back to her by insisting that she does not want to be blamed for Dawn's actions. Joyce fails to recognize that her daughter requires someone to understand her by listening to what she has to say. Meanwhile, Dawn's father remains distant and emotionless as usual. Russell thinks only of himself and is afraid that he will be blamed for Dawn's self-harm. Ironically, the new strains that her condition has put on her family leave Dawn further unable to cope, and she winds up in the emergency room after seriously burning herself with a cigarette lighter in a desperate attempt to alleviate the stress.
Lorraine introduces Dawn to her psychiatrist, Dr. Parella (Rhea Perlman) who seems to be the only understanding voice in the torment of Dawn's volatile and painful world. Realizing there is no alternative for Dawn, her parents agree to allow her to begin counselling with Dr. Parella. Through counselling, Dawn slowly begins to understand that the nature of her disorder stems not simply from her constant feelings of abandonment by the people she loves, but also from her inability to express this pain through verbal channels. Instead, Dawn uses cutting to communicate what she feels inside. Her inability to communicate individually with her parents (as well as their inability to communicate with one another) leaves any hope of emotional support for Dawn unattainable.
Triggered by the news that her friend Lorraine has been brutally beaten by her mother's boyfriend (and by her own mother's refusal to take her to the hospital to visit Lorraine), Dawn loses control and again winds up in the emergency room after having brutally slashed her body. Joyce, feeling she can no longer bear the blame for her daughter's condition, decides it would be better for her to simply leave her family, and she does. Her departure finally triggers a change in Dawn. When Dr. Parella comes to visit her in the hospital afterwards, Dawn breaks down into tears - something she had been unable to do before then. Dr. Parella points out that if tears can take the place of blood, then Dawn has at last begun the long road to recovery.
After being released, Dawn goes to visit Lorraine, who is still in the hospital recovering. Lorraine informs Dawn that her mother is considering leaving her boyfriend, and Dawn tells Lorraine about her mother leaving and what Dr. Parella had said. Lorraine then tells Dawn that the popular kids at their school needed to enjoy being popular while they could, but her and Dawn's time is just beginning.
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Young Artist Awards
Young Artist Award
Best Performance in a TV Movie (Drama) - Leading Young Actress