Plenty of feature films about crime – true or otherwise – center on seemingly normal people who break both the boundaries of normal social behavior and a little thing called the law. Regular people do bad things, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s not shocking and weirdly wrenching when those regular people are of a jarringly young age. Such is the case is Amy Berg’s Every Secret Thing, which follows a pair of pre-teen girls who (possibly) commit a ghastly crime and then (possibly) repeat it nearly a decade later.
The feature opens on what seems to be a charmed night in the Manning household, as mother Helen (Diane Lane) acquiesces to her daughter Alice’s (played in these younger sequences by Brynne Norquist) every demand. Let’s read stories! And paint nails! And bake cookies! Helen is delighted by the requests, unaware that Alice is either desperately trying to please her or attempting to cram all the happy memories she can into a single night before everything changes. A knock on the door interrupts the peace, and suddenly there’s another little face (this one belongs to Ronnie, played in her younger years by Eva Grace Kellner) clinging to Helen, apologizing for something that no words can ever repair.
Every Secret Thing frequently employs a series of flashbacks, often used as memories, to illuminate pieces of the past we haven’t been privy to previously. Those flashbacks start early on, when the story zings back to just three days prior, as Alice and Ronnie ready for a neighborhood birthday party, the kind packed with pretty little girls who have little in common with both Alice and Ronnie. The girls, despite different backgrounds and different desires, are firmly outsiders.
As a child, Alice seems, well, just plain bitchy – but she also appears to be anxious for her mother’s love, a stickler for rules, and desperate to be accepted. Such desperation doesn’t go over so well at the party, especially when she’s saddled with someone like Ronnie, who is even more outside the norm. Ronnie seems unconcerned with how others see her – Alice may not call her “weird” to her face, but Ronnie knows where she stands – and she seems to have a big problem biting her tongue. Kid Ronnie mouths off to the mother of the birthday girl ultimately leading to pair getting kicked out of that pool party, leading to the film’s main chain of events, and years later she exhibits a similar lack of restraint with a rude customer at her bagel shop job.
After the pair forcibly departs the party, they discover a cherubic-faced baby girl, alone in a stroller on a porch. And then they take her.
The fallout from whatever it is that Ronnie and Alice (or just Alice, or just Ronnie, or whichever combination suits) do to that little baby girl is explained away via a series of distractingly fake (and just plain bad) newspapers that serve as the background for the film’s opening credits. Littered with improper punctuation, poor grammar, awkward style, and photographs that no paper would ever actually run, the publications pass along word on the search for the baby, her ultimate discovery, Ronnie and Alice’s trials, and their ultimate sentences (eight years in “kid jail”).
When the girls emerge back into the world – older Alice is portrayed by Danielle Macdonald, while Dakota Fanning takes over as Ronnie – they can’t get away from their shared past. And when another young girl is taken, they become the prime suspects for a dogged detective (Elizabeth Banks), who played a big role in their previous (maybe?) crime.
The main strength of both the film and the book it is based come from the nail-biting patience that goes into steadily unveiling true plots, true characters, and true motivations, and Berg does a stellar job unfurling the film’s complications across a slim 93-minute runtime. The film’s steady tension and unsettling tone never waiver, and Every Secret Thing proves to be enthralling, engaging, and damn scary. Although its final act isn’t as strong as the previous two, the entire feature is finely made and remarkably focused.
Elizabeth Banks, traditionally known for her comedic stylings, turns in an understated and intriguing turn as Detective Nancy Porter. Banks already has one dramatic role under her belt this year, thanks to her work in the also-heavy Little Accidents, which debuted at Sundance in January, but her performance in Every Secret Thing is more finally honed and emotionally eerie. The film’s real standout is Macdonald, who easily slips between the often-changing facets of Alice’s twisted (yet strangely sweet and weirdly polite) personality. She’s got the real heavy lifting here, playing both victim and perpetrator, and her performance is nearly impossible to turn away from.
The film is adapted from the Laura Lippman novel of the same name, a 2003 crime novel that marked Lippman’s first foray into fiction writing without the use of her beloved heroine, Tess Monaghan (a newspaper writer turned private eye, and a character that helped hone Lippman’s nose for tales of crime and deceit). Filmmaker Nicole Holofcener penned the film’s screenplay, and although it’s her first attempt at writing a project for someone else to direct, her interest in the relationships of women and the friction between classes are obvious. It’s no wonder she wanted to take on the project, even without directing it for herself, and it’s both a unique and oddly obvious entry into her resume. Holofcener’s films are always strangely wonderful, but she’s never gone into this kind of dark territory, and she’s certainly got a knack for it.
The film may be director Berg’s narrative debut, but its subject matter hews closely to what the filmmaker often tackles in her popular and insightful documentaries (including Deliver Us From Evil and West of Memphis), including the issues of social justice and sharp interest in giving a voice to victims. If this is how she wants to pursue her narrative career, it’s a fine start, and we certainly want to see much more like the twisted and truly unnerving Every Secret Thing.
The Upside: Solid performances from the entire cast, well-crafted tension and tone, steadily unravels both plot and character in new and wholly unexpected ways, and a single jump scare that will grab everyone.
The Downside: The film’s final act careens a bit too wildly toward its final revelations, a number of pieces fit too neatly together while others are left unresolved, distractingly bad fake newspapers are used for exposition that could have been otherwise more naturally shared.
On the Side: The film is not only Berg’s narrative directorial debut, it is the first time a feature has been made from one of author Lippman’s numerous bestselling novels.