A wrenching, intense and affecting study of the long-term effects of child abuse, “Don’t Be Afraid” combines the psychological reach of a good docu with tremulous suspense, mirroring a life lived in fear. Crafted with sensitivity and care in every detail, pic furthers writer-helmer Montxo Armendariz’s interest in social criticism with a muted, virtually plot-free approach that focuses solely on the inner life of the pic’s protag (a superb Michelle Jenner). Thought-provoking and evocative result deserves offshore play.
Opening images of a middle-class family walking happily in the park are followed by a disturbing scene in which 7-year-old Silvia (Irene Cervantes) is sexually abused by her father (Lluis Homar), the camera fixed on her uncomprehending stare as the act occurs. This is one of several authentically haunting images in an item that is always suggestive, never explicit.
The early scenes establish the conditions for both the film and the rest of Silvia’s life, as the abuse turns Silvia (played at age 14 by Irantzu Erro) into a perpetually frightened, emotionally damaged individual. Her mother (Belen Rueda) not only refuses to see it, but blames Silvia for the rising tensions within the family.
At 25, Silvia (now played by Jenner) is fragile, sensitive and traumatized, a budding cellist with a gambling addiction and only one friend, Maite (Nuria Gago), though she hesitantly gets involved with a barman (Ruben Ochandiano). Silvia’s mother and father have now separated. One day, Silvia, near-catatonic, deliberately lets herself fall out of a moving taxi and is hospitalized. When she refuses to let her father in to see her, a psychologist (Cristina Plazas) is assigned to her case.
Narrative is interspersed with therapy-session recollections, enacted by thesps but drawn from real-life abuse cases. Since Silvia is either unable or unwilling to discuss her inner life, the memories she experiences presumably rep an attempt to reveal what life is like for her from the inside.
But the power and depth of Jenner’s performance are such that these scenes are not really necessary. Effectively silenced by the refusal of her friends and family to accept what has happened, the blank-faced but clear-eyed Silvia has to find her own way out of her pain, and Jenner skillfully communicates the character’s clumsy, agonizing and heroic journey from the inside, with actions and gestures that speak louder than the words she cannot utter.
The script offers little insight into what is driving her father, a role that elicits a remarkable, internally driven perf from Homar. At the beginning, he is a stereotypically charming, urbane monster; by the end, he’s become a shadow of a man for whom both Silvia, and by extension the audience, might feel a little pity.
Alex Catalan’s lensing emphasizes Silvia’s hauntedness, often tracking her from behind while she’s walking or catching glimpses of her through half-open doorways — staple horror-lensing techniques that feel appropriate here.
Pic’s generally stripped-back, naturalistic feel is further enhanced by the lack of a nonsource score, with music provided only by Silvia’s expressive cello. The title refers not only to the words Silvia’s father utters before violating her, but also to Silvia’s confrontation of her own demons.