Review of Yelita Ali’s The Whole Truth

Review by Denise Papas Meechan
Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo

Copy Edited and Posted by Iliana Cosme-Brooks

The Whole Truth (2020). 36min 9sec. Written and produced by Sophie Max. Directed by Yelita Ali. Starring Sophie Max and Kaja Chan.

Still of Mallory and Jenny in the interrogation room. It is a dimly lit room with two windows with the blinds pulled, and a table the two characters are sitting at with a landline phone on it. Almost everything in the room is white. Jenny is staring down Mallory while slouching a bit in her chair.

Sophie Max’s latest film, The Whole Truth, is a character study of two women—Mallory, a mature police officer, and Jenny (Kaja Chan), a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. We meet them during a tense interrogation, and for most of the film, the women are alone in a stark, institutional room with a camera pointing at the victim, Jenny. Its red, blinking light waits impatiently to record all the sordid details of her rape. As Mallory (Sophie Max) tries to balance empathy for the young girl with the prying questions demanded by her job as a police officer, we soon realize that both are suffering through different stages of sexual assault.

Jenny is a victim that, apparently, told officials about her relationship with a male teacher before, but she is forced to relive it again and again due to police protocol. Her story unexpectedly triggers Mallory, who is facing demons from her own past. As she pries information from Jenny, she slowly realizes that she has more in common with the schoolgirl than she originally thought. Jenny is in denial, believing that what the teacher did to her was out of love, that he was the only adult who saw her potential. Her reactions to the questioning transports Mallory into flashbacks of her own rape. The static interrogation scene of Jenny is then intertwined with flashbacks from Mallory’s own experiences.

Mallory’s flashbacks are never salacious. The filmmaker treats the subject of abuse with respect and care throughout the film. However, those flashback scenes might have had a more powerful impact if the decision were to accompany them with complete silence rather than the accompanying ear-ringing beep. Although the ringing brings to life the uncomfortably painful experience, it may make some viewers look away, as the ringing is, in itself, triggering to some. I, for one, suffer from tinnitus and found it difficult to look at the screen during these traumatic scenes. 

The realistic dialogue and expert acting by Max and Chan bring out the empathy and shared trust between the characters, without being too demonstrative. The emotions and feelings of the actors are fluid—as if their relationship is being built in real time in front of the camera. Chan’s Jenny is a whip-smart teen who intuitively senses a shared suffering and breaks through the police officer’s hard exterior. We sense that her character will hold more power at the end of this film than the authority to whom she confesses. Through her emotive acting, Max brings to life the police officer nurturing a hurt inner child.  

Eventually, Mallory is forced to recognize the strength in Jenny. We decipher that the reason she never told her own story of abuse years ago was because she feared the re-victimization the system puts victims like Jenny through. Information and plot points such as these are subtly revealed in undertones of the dialogue and expertly displayed by director Yelita Ali. The direction is always understated, never getting in the way of the story, always allowing the characters to expose the twists. Her “stand-back” attitude to directing the camera really works here. With a story as powerful and triggering to some, it’s important to keep the direction gentle.

The filmmaking on all accounts remains sensitive to the story. The score is nuanced; it’s barely noticeable, but it provides sufficient impact during emotional scenes. The camera keeps out of the actors’ way, showcasing their abilities and letting them take over the shot. Although some handheld scenes could have wavered a bit less, the different camera styles chosen by Director of Photography Ash Lang Wen Li, and the few times we leave the police station and follow the women home, help break up the uniformity of interrogation room scenes. And although the lighting looked realistic, it could have been utilized to reflect more of the emotional range the characters were experiencing. There was also a notable audio glitch, but overall, the film looked and sounded very professional.

The difficulty a filmmaker goes through when dealing with a topic as sensitive as assault is tremendous. A word or image can trigger a negative response in the viewer, suffocating their good intentions with one wrong step. There is not one wrong step here. The Whole Truth is a film that clearly had a compassionate and sympathetic filmmaker behind it, hoping to start a conversation on the epidemic of sexual assault.

In the brilliantly-written script and in her superb acting in the lead role, Max uses care to set up the narrative and portray characters that are not just defined by their trauma but give the audience a sense of hope and female friendship at the end. Max chose to only include the victim’s side of the story; she omitted the perpetrator’s point of view, not allowing him to offer excuses or plead for our sympathy. She did this because she understands the story of sexual assault is unfortunately, the victim’s story. Whether that victim is female, non-binary or male, a sexual assault can cause severe mental health issues like PTSD. Hearing the perpetrator’s side of the story would distract from all the emotions the victims are processing.

In the hands of careful and sensitive filmmakers like Max, we can have faith that the topic of sexual assault could soon be unstigmatized and brought to the forefront of discourse in a way that can lead to real progress. A victim’s greatest weapon is their voice. The more they speak out, the more the stigma can be erased, and predators can be held accountable. Films like The Whole Truth are desperately needed to make change. They enforce support networks, show those that suffer that allies do exist, and stress that it can be safe to come forward with their own truths.

Learn more about The Whole Truth by checking out its Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and IMDb pages, as well as through the film’s partnership with One in Four, a UK-based charity for sexual assault survivors. You can watch the trailer here. Connect with Denise through her profile.