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There’s a formidable array of talent involved in acclaimed documentary filmmaker Amy Berg’s (Deliver Us from Evil, West of Memphis) fiction film debut adapted from Laura Lippman’s 2003 novel. Co-produced by actress Frances McDormand, written by Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Please Give) and featuring a cast that includes Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks and Dakota Fanning, Every Secret Thing would seem to have everything going for it. But despite its impressively sustained mood of dark foreboding, this tale of two young women suspected in the disappearance of a missing toddler is ultimately undone by its stylistic ambition. Sluggishly paced and convoluted in its storytelling, the film receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival finally resembles an episode of Law and Order: SVU as might have been directed by Ingmar Bergman.
The decade-spanning storyline set in a New York City suburb revolves around teenagers Alice (Danielle Macdonald) and Ronnie (Fanning), who were convicted for the crime of murdering a mixed-race baby when they were just eight. Shortly after being released from a juvenile correction facility 10 years later, the troubled duo find themselves the object of attention when yet another mixed-race toddler goes missing soon after.
Investigating the crime are detectives Nancy Porter (Banks) and her partner Jones (Nate Parker), who naturally focus their attention on the girls because of the crimes’ eerie similarities. Each suspect had previously accused the other of being responsible for the first offense and now strongly proclaims innocence regarding the second.
Both are struggling with personal demons. Ronnie, raised in a poor household and now working in a bagel store, is socially withdrawn and trying to keep a low profile, while the very overweight Alice (Macdonald) is coping with obvious body issues under the watchful eye of her overbearing, protective mother Helen (Lane).
Although tangentially dealing with both racial and feminist issues, the film eventually devolves into standard police procedural territory, albeit tinged with heavy doses of psychologizing. As the detectives frantically race the clock in an effort to find the child before it’s too late, their attention increasingly shifts to Alice, whose angry resentment of the way the world has treated her is matched by her dream of achieving fame.
Suffused with an air of dread thanks to director of photography Rob Hardy’s atmospheric, dark-hued lensing, the film nonetheless never achieves the necessary dramatic tension. Lacking the taut intensity of the recent, similarly themed Prisoners, it meanders along in rambling fashion until it reaches its not so unpredictable conclusion.
Holofcener’s screenplay features many provocative tangential moments, such as Jones’ harsh treatment of the African-American boyfriend (Common) of the missing child’s distraught mother: “You the baby daddy?” he asks with a sneer. But for all its provocative elements, it too often allows the central mystery to slip from focus.
The cast delivers impressive performances, although Fanning struggles with her ill-defined character. Besides Banks’ steely detective, the standouts are Lane and Macdonald as the mother and daughter whose relationship is disturbingly off-kilter. But despite the strenuous efforts of all involved, Every Secret Thing never manages to overcome its overwhelming air of artsy pretension.
Production: Hyde Park Entertainment, Likely Story, Merced Media Partners, PalmStar Entertainment
Cast: Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks, Dakota Fanning, Danielle Macdonald, Nate Parker, Common
Director: Amy Berg
Screenwriter: Nicole Holofcener
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Frances McDormand
Executive producers: Ashok Amritraj, Stefanie Azpiazu, Michael Bederman, Kevin Scott Frakes, Raj Brinder Singh
Director of photography: Rob Hardy
Production designer: Molly Hughes
Costume designer: Emma Potter
Editors: Ron Patane, Billy McMillan
Music: Robin Coudert
Rated R, 93 minutes
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