Straining for psychological depth and taut suspense but reaching only a few notches higher than a Lifetime TV movie, Every Secret Thing squanders the talents of several excellent actresses - Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks, Dakota Fanning, and a relative newcomer, Danielle Macdonald.
This downbeat police procedural involves the kidnapping of a three-year-old girl in the economically depressed upstate New York town of Orangeburg. The crime eerily echoes a horrific baby-snatching and murder that took place there seven years before, committed by two 11-year-old girls who, tried as juveniles, were sent up the river. Anyone who has watched more than one or two TV cop shows can guess that the present-day crime takes place mere weeks after the two girls (now 18 years old) have been released and returned to their homes.
Every Secret Thing flashes backwards and forwards in time, showing the weirdly symbiotic dynamic among Ronnie Fuller (Fanning as an adult, Eva Grace Kellner as a girl), Alice Manning (Macdonald at 18, Brynne Norquist as her younger self) and Alice’s mother Helen (Lane). In both time periods Lane’s high-strung Helen makes her own daughter rabidly jealous by ignoring her while doting on Ronnie. We learn just how much Helen prefers Ronnie, and the number of times she has malevolently meddled in her own daughter’s life, during the numerous reveals and twists that make up the movie’s plot. It’s a Freudian field day: ultimately, mom(s) are to blame for just about everything (though there’s also plenty of delusional nuttiness to go around).
The two crimes and time periods are also tied together by Banks’ police detective Nancy Porter. As a rookie cop she discovered the body of the kidnapped baby, and while her initiative got her a promotion the guilt at not being able to save the tyke’s life has haunted her. Banks, often a zany, outrageous presence on TV shows like Scrubs and Modern Family as well as in the Hunger Games franchise, shows she can also play it straight - and do it well. (She also directed Pitch Perfect 2, and while I didn’t love that movie it showed she could handle a complex, big-budget sequel.)
But in Every Secret Thing everyone, both in front of the camera and behind, tamps down their sense of humor. That’s certainly appropriate given the subject matter, but it also makes for a slow, glum 93-minute slog. The screenplay, based on a novel by Laura Lippman, is by Nicole Holofcener, the writer/director of the delightful 2013 Enough Said (with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini) and the bitterly amusing 2006 Friends with Money. In these films and her other work, Holofcener has been able to discover the humor in the drama and vice versa, but director Amy Berg has kept a lid on any kind of laughter (even the rueful, nervous, or embarrassed varieties) here.
To their credit, what Holofcener and Berg have accomplished is illuminating the sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle economic, class, and racial divides that define the town and the characters’ lives. As an example: the kidnapped toddler’s mother (Sarah Sokolovic) is white but her boyfriend (Common) is black. When the distraught couple is first being interviewed by the police, Banks’ partner Det. Jones (Nate Parker) keeps needling Common, who he clearly suspects of something - if not complicity in the actual crime, then of just being a lower-class thug. The fact that Jones is himself African-American adds another layer of complexity to the dynamic - no one is tougher on you than a member of your own group.
There’s also fine work (and another scene of class/racial struggle with Common) from Renée Elise Goldsberry, as the mother of the murdered baby and now an anxious parent to another beautiful biracial child. Goldsberry, known to fans of the best broadcast TV drama The Good Wife as Assistant State’s Attorney Geneva Pine, conveys her character’s guilt and righteous anger in just a few powerful scenes.
Macdonald, as the heavy-set older Alice, at first seems just silly, self-absorbed and snotty (she dreams of turning her true-life sorrows into reality TV stardom), and she gets off a few good lines. (Talking to the attractive Banks, she says “No one ever believes the fat girl. Especially someone like you.”) Fanning does nice work as her haunted partner in crime, and both the actresses playing their younger selves make the duo’s horrific actions scarily plausible.
No, I can’t fault the actors, but ultimately, Every Secret Thing is less than the sum of its parts. In trying to tell a tough story without the usual car chases, gunplay and histrionics, Berg and Holofcener have also muted the film’s emotional content. As layer after layer of the monstrousness of Diane Lane’s Helen is revealed, I was more aware of the plot’s gears efficiently turning than getting really caught up in this misguided mother’s weird worldview. But maybe I’ve been watching a few too many police procedurals myself.