on September 20, 2002 by Chris Wiegand
   This year's Sundance hot potato embraces self-mutilation, shame and a dozen sexual perversions, yet still tries to make it as a touching love story. Despite powerful performances from its main stars, “Secretary” falls short of its ambitious aims, struggling to find a fitting end for its intriguing and original premise.

   Fresh out of an institution and back to pricking her own skin for self-satisfaction, the timid and quietly attractive Lee (“Donnie Darko's” Maggie Gyllenhaal) kickstarts her career by applying for a secretarial position at the offices of one E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Thrilled to receive the job, she soon finds herself berated for her carelessness and ordered to undertake demeaning tasks for Grey's apparent pleasure. As time goes by, Lee learns to love the kind of abuse she receives at the (literal) hand of her boss, letting more mistakes into her work to ensure a hefty payback.

   The tables turned, Grey grows confused, unsure of the role each has assumed in the relationship. He swiftly ditches his secretary for fear of emotional attachment. In the face of amorous advances from wimpy casual boyfriend Peter (Jeremy Davies), Lee realizes she really wants Grey back and faces him for a final showdown.

   Based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, the film's lead characters will strike a familiar chord with anyone aware of the work of Todd Solondz. For a good hour or so, the film plays along in the vein of “Happiness” and “Welcome To The Dollhouse,” cutting a quirky, captivating style, yet never losing sight of the darkness of the material.

   Erin Cressida's edgy, daring script demands challenging, physical performances from the lead actors. Gyllenhaal delivers a name-making turn as the titular secretary, while Spader, as the squirming, sexually perverted lawyer, is in full control of his role. “Secretary” was awarded the fest's Special Jury Prize for Originality.    Starring James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lesley Ann Warren and Jeremy Davies. Directed by Steven Shainberg. Written by Erin Cressida Wilson. Produced by Steven Shainberg, Andrew Fierberg and Amy Hobby. A Lions Gate release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 104 min.

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