This is a tough sell.
The mindset of the warped and twisted has been the focal point of many a brilliant film through the years, but if you’re going to make a movie about two 11-year-old girls who are put away for murdering an infant — only to be released seven years later and implicated in the disappearance of a toddler — that film should be something special. Otherwise, why delve into such subject matter?
“Every Secret Thing” is a small, well-crafted film with a few chilling moments and some fine performances, but it’s a muddled, pedestrian crime thriller — and that’s a particular disappointment because the producer is Frances McDormand; the screenplay is from the gifted Nicole Holofcener (writer-director of “Enough Said” and “Lovely & Amazing”), and the director is Amy Berg, who has lensed the excellent crime documentaries “West of Memphis” and “Deliver Us From Evil.”
Despite those credentials from the filmmakers and an excellent cast that includes Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks, Nate Parker and Dakota Fanning, “Every Secret Thing” feels flat and unfocused.
We have two timelines. In scenes filmed in a distractingly gauzy tone, Ronnie (Eva Grace Kellner) and Alice (Bryne Norquist), two 11-year-old girls who are both outcasts and can’t stand each other, attend another girl’s birthday party, with humiliating results.
On the way home, they happen upon an unattended baby in a stroller on a front porch.
Cut to seven years later. Having been convicted in the infant’s death and sent to separate juvenile detention centers, Alice (now played by Danielle Macdonald) and Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) are now 18 and back in the small, economically depressed suburb of New York City where they grew up. (Per legal mandate, they are not to have contact with one another.)
Diane Lane is Alice’s mom Helen, a tightly wound schoolteacher who treats her students far better than she ever treated her own daughter. (Helen was also partial to Ronnie when the girls were small — complimenting Ronnie on her slim figure and praising her to the skies while her own overweight daughter brooded in the background.)
Alice spends her days walking aimlessly around the neighborhood and making half-hearted attempts to find a job. Ronnie finds work at a bagel store. Alice is mean to her mother and addicted to trash TV. (She fantasizes about starring in a reality show in which she’ll prove her innocence.) Ronnie is constantly getting into trouble at work, and she seems to care about nothing.
When a 3-year-old girl goes missing, Elizabeth Banks’ Detective Nancy Porter (at least they didn’t call her Nancy Drew) leads the investigation, even though Nancy swore she’d never do another missing-child case after she was the one who discovered the dead baby seven years prior.
Elizabeth Banks is a fine actress, but it’s a bit of miscasting here. She and her partner (Nate Parker) seem to be in over their heads and curiously lacking in focus and a sense of urgency about the case. (Scenes where Nancy yells about paperwork on the phone, and her partner harangues a possible suspect, ring false and forced.) Banks’ modified mullet haircut, presumably meant to identify her character as someone who’s beautiful but doesn’t care a whit about appearance, is nothing but distracting.
“Every Secret Thing” keeps flashing back to the horrific tragedy from seven years ago, hinting there might be more to the story than the police and the public believed. Alice’s mother Helen delivers a stunning monologue hinting at why Alice is so disturbed. (Lane’s performance as the delusional Helen is the best thing in the film.)
Most of the important questions are answered but not explained. The film’s ending is simultaneously overwrought and implausible. We’re left with a film that touches on themes from race and class warfare to the media’s fascination with missing children cases, but never delves beyond the surface into any of these things.
Starz Digital presents a film directed by Amy Berg and written by Nicole Holofcener, based on the novel by Laura Lippman. Running time: 93 minutes. Rated R (for some language and disturbing images). Opens Friday at AMC South Barrington 30 and on demand.