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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Review: Every Secret Thing

As children, Ronnie Fuller and Alice Manning take a child off a porch to play with, and then decide never to bring her back. Three days later, the child is dead; shortly thereafter, Alice and Ronnie are discovered, arrested, tried as children, and imprisoned until they're 18 years old. Now, just two weeks after their respective releases, they're trying to move on. Moody Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) keeps her head down and works a minimum wage job at a bagel shop. Alice (Danielle Macdonald) goes on long, private walks to lose weight and apply for jobs and, at least a little, to avoid her meddling mother (Diane Lane). Their brief attempt at establishing a routine is disrupted when another child goes missing shortly after their release, in a case that bears remarkable similarities to their own - even down to the detective, Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks) who solved the previous crime in her first case, and returns to try and get there early enough to save this child in time.

Every Secret Thing is adapted from Laura Lippman's book of the same name. Lippman, a Baltimore native and popular crime novelist, a contemporary of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone author Dennis Lehane (who also worked with Lippman's husband on The Wire). Fittingly, Every Secret Thing feels like a piece of the same world as River and Gone, yet another restrained crime potboiler about past sins returning to haunt a community that never faced up to their issues. Director Amy Berg (of the haunting documentary Deliver Us From Evil) and cinematographer Rob Hardy (Ex Machina) even make the movie look and feel like the films of Eastwood and Affleck, giving the film a chilly distance. But where those stories were about the repressed pain of working class men, Every Secret Thing is about the repressed pain of the women in their lives. The change in focus lets Every Secret Thing mine some new territory in a subgenre that's struggled to find something interesting to say lately, but Berg's bleak realism doesn't give that new material room to grow.

While much of the credit goes to Lippman, the screenplay here was written by established indie darling Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said). Holofcener has created some of the best indie dramedies out there, often focusing on women's relationships and characters who use brutal honesty in order to avoid dealing with the truth. Holofcener may be the ideal person to tackle Every Secret Thing, then, a story about the way we tell one another stories to conceal what we've done, or what we've allowed to happen. Unfortunately, her wonderfully plotless indies haven't really helped her put together a gripping mystery - the character work is strong, but the pacing is too slack. Instead of a series of well-timed reveals, reversals, and dramatic turns, Every Secret Thing layers its biggest turns one on top of another, cutting each one off before its dramatic potential could be fully explored. This is a movie that needed to be tighter or longer; as is, it's the wrong combination of lack and short.

The film has plenty of solid performances, though Berg's actors studiously avoid anything too showy, anything that will shatter the carefully constructed (and, in my opinion, unnecessary) veneer of bleak realism that pervades the film. Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2) and Dakota Fanning (Night Moves) fare the best, each of them playing a character who is haunted by the same night seven years prior, each of them having internalized their grief to such a degree they barely seem alive during the case. Danielle Macdonald (The East) is tasked with a more difficult role, her Alice - a self-loathing, overweight girl clearly sick of suffering for her friend - carrying much of the film's dramatic heft. When she's on, she gives the movie its best scenes, but she's a bit too uneven to really hold it all together, particularly as her version of events clashes with Fanning's in increasingly dramatic ways. She isn't particularly helped there by Diane Lane (Man of Steel), whose character's motivations are tragically glossed over in the film, causing two crucial scenes to fall a bit flat.

Still, Every Secret Thing will almost assuredly be well-received by audiences when they finally have a chance to catch it - predictably, Amy Berg's film isn't getting the same level of distribution that Clint Eastwood's or Ben Affleck's did. In addition to its strong resemblance to Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, Berg borrows liberally from a more recent (and stronger) hit: Gone Girl, another examination of the fluid nature of truth and toxic family relationships. But Berg's film is too focused, too brief, for its twists to hit with the brutal efficiency of Fincher's film, and it lacks an actor as magnetic as Rosamund Pike to hold it all together. Berg and Holofcener find a powerful dramatic heart beneath the thriller plot, but the split focus and short run time means that neither element feels fully complete. Every Secret Thing is a reasonably enjoyable mystery with some really great character work, but with a group of creators and performers this talented, it's hard not to wish for more.

Every Secret Thing is currently in limited release across the nation, and is available on common VOD services. Written by Nicole Holofcener adapting Laura Lippman's novel of the same name and directed by Amy Berg, Every Secret Thing stars Elizabeth Banks, Dakota Fanning, Diane Lane, and Danielle Macdonald.
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