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Near the top of my list of most anticipated films playing at the Tribeca Film Festival was the crime drama Every Secret Thing. My interest in the film was first sparked when it was announced as the first narrative feature from documentarian Amy Berg, maker of such celebrated crime docs as West Of Memphis and Deliver Us From Evil. Having admired her past work, I was intrigued to see what she'd do with the freedom of narrative storytelling. Adding to my anticipation was a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener, who has a marvelous skill for crafting complicated and compelling characters. Plus, Berg had wrangled a cast that includes such mesmerizing performers as Nate Parker, Diane Lane, Dakota Fanning, and Elizabeth Banks. All this was to be folded into the kind of murder mystery that I'd willingly indulge in right before a restless night's sleep.
For all these reasons, I couldn't wait to see Every Secret Thing. And for all these reasons it crushes me to report how profoundly disappointed I was in the final film.
Adapted from the novel by Laura Lippman, Every Secret Thing centers on the investigation into a missing three-year-old girl, snatched away from a furniture store. Suspicion instantly falls on two 18-year-old girls who were recently released from prison after serving seven years for the abduction and murder of an infant. The details of that long-closed case have continued to haunt Detective Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks). With a similar crime popping up so coincidentally after the girls' release, she dives in to uncover what she may have missed the first time around.
The film quickly spins into a she said/she said battle between the teens, who couldn't be more different. Alice Manning (Danielle Macdonald) comes from a middle-class home where she wanted for nothing, except a slimmer figure. Her weight makes her feel like a disappointment to her thin and pretty mother (Diane Lane), but nonetheless she now has aspirations of reality TV stardom and clearing her name. Skinny and fair Ronnie Fuller (Dakota Fanning) comes from a far shabbier situation. It's implied her mother is a junkie, her father is a crook, and so on some level it's expected that she'll go nowhere, no matter how she might try. These two girls were barely friends seven years before, but now their fates are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, this conflict never feels in focus, as the film stumbles from it to Porter's investigation and back with an unpredictable pivots.
The wonky structure can be blamed on Holofcener, who took a major risk stepping outside her comfort zone of so-called "white people problems" movies like the hilarious and moving Enough Said and Friends with Money. As much as I like her low-stakes comedies, I admire her risk-taking here. Unfortunately, without the familiar setting or even her reliance on observational humor, she is lost. The plot is a snarl of scenes, and the dialogue too often feels like a stark early draft with characters nakedly spouting out should-be subtext and exposition, and smaller characters falling out the plotline abruptly and completely.
Though there are flashbacks to the first crime, most of the narrative is set in the thick of the search for the missing girl. Anyone who has every even watched a movie or TV show about a missing child knows how critical the first 48 hours are to finding a kid alive. And yet there's no sense of urgency to the film's tone. It's pacing is languid, slumping from one scene to the next. Passing time is lazily marked by expositional dialogue. I was stunned that Berg, who had so masterfully laced tension and heart-sinking drama into her doc work, has so completely failed to thrill here. There's no momentum to the proceedings. And surprisingly the cast does little to lift Every Secret Thing out of its stupor.
With a stony stare and lackluster wig, Banks is believable but bland as the detective plagued by doubts about her big case. Lane adds some spice as the mother of one of the convicted girls, but at times her delivery of Holofcener's uncharacteristically rough dialogue makes the film veer too far into the tone of made-for-TV melodrama. Dakota Fanning brings an instant gravity to the proceedings as Ronnie, carrying both her physical and emotional scars with a heartbreaking sense of fragility. But much of the film's dramatic gravity depends on Macdonald, who is not a strong enough actress to ground it.
Most of the film Macdonald seems either to be sulking or sneering, breathing little emotional depth into a character who--with all her faults--is complex and potentially compelling. Instead, Alice seems a transparent devil who is giddy at the idea of messing with the minds of those around her. With this element out of whack, the narrative's stacks of supposedly shocking revelations don't dazzle the way they are clearly intended to, then the finale feels predictable and too long in coming. I'm astonished Every Secret Thing's running time comes to 93-minutes. It feels much, much longer.
So, yes, in the end, I was greatly let down by Every Secret Thing. I genuinely don't understand how it was such a misfire when on paper it was so promising. Holofcener seems in over her head, cramming in so many plot threads and characters along with half-cooked themes about racism, class prejudice, and fatism. Berg doesn't show a natural gift for drawing out engaging performances as she did in conducting fascinating interviews. Instead, the movie works best in silent moments, like Lane's mother alone in her thoughts, or Fanning's Ronnie regarding herself in the mirror, while hiding her wrists torn up with self-inflicted scars.
Making me all the more concerned about Every Secret Thing is just how hard it is for female filmmakers in particular to rebound after a film fails. Despite its faults, I do want to see more from Berg. While the execution was a mess, the concept and intent here is as compelling as that of her earlier works. Thankfully, she's already in the works on a slew of new documentaries. Here's hoping that if and when she returns to narrative moviemaking she scales back to better focus and create the kind of unforgettable films we've become accustomed to from her.
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