The crime happened in a place called Orangetown, yet in its aftermath, the town was shaded with grey. An infant rocking in her stroller outside on a balmy day was snatched, randomly. The culprits were two pre-teen girls who then tried to raise the child in secret. The baby was the granddaughter of the town’s first African-American judge. The young thieves didn’t last long and authorities promptly arrested them. However, mere weeks after the suspects – the heavy-set Alice (Danielle Macdonald) and the introverted Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) – are both 18 and out of juvenile detention, a toddler that is a near mirror image of the infant snatched years earlier disappears.
This is the set-up for Every Secret Thing, an adaptation from Laura Lippmann’s 2004 paperback bestseller. The mystery is notable for boasting a terrific collection of actresses in front of the camera – many of whom play autonomous, intriguing, flawed women – and behind the scenes. The screenplay comes from Nicole Holofcener, of Enough Said fame, while Frances McDormand is a producer. Director Amy Berg, meanwhile, transitions from making documentaries about true crime and abuse (Deliver Us From Evil, West of Memphis) to a drama that could have very well been ripped from the headlines. (Fittingly, the film’s opening credits fall over newspaper clippings that describe the aftermath of the initial crime.)
Nevertheless, Every Secret Thing lacks a compelling mystery at its center. The main surprises come from information that Holofcener withholds from the audience, only to spring into the mix as certain details come to light via flashback. The progression of most of the investigation, from the evidence we do see, will likely be familiar even to those who do not watch police procedurals routinely.
For a film based off a 400-page novel, Every Secret Thing doesn’t have a lot of narrative juice. Not very much happens between the beginning of the investigation, led by Det. Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks) and Det. Jones (Nate Parker), to the inevitable epiphany of what really occurred. Red herrings are rare; instead, Porter and Jones question the two teen suspects, scan through a couple of public documents and simply figure out how it all connects. Both detectives put the dots together without much of a challenge.
The last few minutes of the film even hint at a protracted aftermath to the plot events, although Holofcener’s script skimps on these details. The parents of the missing toddler, played by Common and Sara Sokolovic, get precious little screen time too as they wait around the house for answers. Given the intensity of these moments between the couple, more time with these characters would have been satisfying.
Instead of putting much of its attention on the central case or its victims, the film looks into the strange (and strained) relationships between the two ex-convicts, as well as how they relate to Helen (Diane Lane), Alice’s bubbly mom. Despite receiving first billing on the drama, Lane is on screen for less than a third of the film. Regardless, her turn as a concerned parent trying to revive a prickly relationship with her apathetic, image-obsessed daughter rings completely true.
Both Ronnie and Alice are outsiders that don’t quite fit into a mold of feminine perfection, and are two of the most psychologically compelling young women to appear on the screen in a while. Fanning gives an aura of vulnerability to Ronnie, even when the character acts out. Still, the film’s true standout is Macdonald, offering shades of pathos and wry humor. Her portrayal of Alice, a child who feels neglected by her parent and the justice system yet seeks attention in some polarizing ways, manages to get under our skin, even as the character becomes more difficult to trust.
Although this is Berg’s first fiction film, signs of her prowess as a documentarian are present. Many of the scenes are raw and immediate, bolstered by hand-held shooting and a lack of key lighting that creates a syrupy atmosphere. The interior scenes have a kind of permanent dimness, murky to the point that shading the action any further could have rendered these moments to be incomprehensible. (Outside, the characters often cast their eyes downward, as if to block out the whiteness of the sky from view.)
Berg’s feature debut is also refreshingly restrained for a crime thriller; however, the original score from Robin Coudert sometimes crescendos near the end of a tense scene, making one expect a quick, dramatic cut to commercial. (Also overwrought: the insert of a crying baby sound effect during a pivotal scene with the 18-year-old Alice and Ronnie.)
Every Secret Thing should be a fine drama, well acted and smartly directed, yet its merits seem to matter less when the central mystery is so pedestrian. The last third of the film – when the answers are unloaded – is cluttered with exposition and some story conveniences that may have worked better if we knew more about the characters. (Without revealing too much, a pivotal action of Helen’s against her daughter is quite hard to accept based on what we learned about their relationship earlier in the story.) There is a wealth on talent on the screen and behind the scenes, yet so much of it feels wasted on a flimsy central case.
Amy Berg transitions to drama with Every Secret Thing, a mystery with shattering performances but a lacklustre case at its core.