The girl is missing. Three-year-old Brittney Little was last seen in a furniture store as her young mother, Maveen (Sarah Sokolovic), and Maveen’s boyfriend (Common), playfully argued about which type of couch to buy. Two detectives are called to investigate, and they soon begin to unravel a complex plot that could help explain Brittney’s disappearance.
But that’s not where Every Secret Thing begins.
The crime gains so much lasting infamy that when Brittney disappears years later, the now-adult Alice (Danielle Macdonald) and Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) are considered primary, though independent, suspects in Brittney’s abduction. Problem is, the current evidence against Alice and Ronnie is thin, as realized by the detectives on the case (Elizabeth Banks and Nate Parker).
What immediately sets Every Secret Thing apart from similar whodunit thrillers is its smart narrative structure. The film goes to great lengths to carefully reveal itself to us, while still breezing by at a cool 93 minutes. If told as a straight story, most surprises and character motivations would be revealed far too early. Instead, Every Secret Thing uses the past as a weapon. Every flashback is based on either Alice or Ronnie’s conflicting perspective. Whose memory is fractured for convenience, and whose is fractured for protection?
Every Secret Thing had an interesting road to production. In 2010, Frances McDormand bought the rights to Laura Lippman’s novel, commissioning her friend, Nicole Holofcener, to write and direct the film adaptation. Holofcener, the director of such fine films as Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money, Please Give and Enough Said, wrote the tight script but ultimately realized the material was too dark for her to direct. Years later, fearless documentarian Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil, West of Memphis), signed on as director, making Every Little Secret her narrative feature debut.
It’s not easy for documentarians to switch to narrative films. Michael Moore (Canadian Bacon), Errol Morris (The Dark Wind), Joe Berlinger (Blair Witch 2), R.J. Cutler (If I Stay), are only a few who have tried and misfired. Berg is a rare exception. Her knack for story reveal is constant in Every Secret Thing. Berg and co-editors, Billy McMillin (West of Memphis, An Open Secret), and Ron Patane (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), know just how much to withhold while still maintaining interest.
This notion of the slow reveal permeates throughout the entire film. The cinematographer, Rob Hardy (who also shot Ex Machina), often uses low light, silhouettes are deliberate focus to isolate characters’ intentions. And Holofcener’s script never allows the actors to say more than is necessary.
And those actors are a sight to behold. Every Secret Thing contains one of the finest collections of strong female characters that I’ve seen in quite some time. If you watch Every Secret Thing with someone, you’ll likely spend a great deal of time talking about Diane Lane’s character. I’ll leave the discussion to you, but my God, what a role. Easily Lane’s best work since Unfaithful. Norquist and Kellner are perfectly nuanced incarnations of young Alice and Ronnie, while Macdonald and Fanning occupy the adult roles with great restraint and mystery. Banks’ turn as Detective Porter is her finest dramatic effort yet, and Sarah Sokolovic delivers a brief but terrified performance as Brittney’s mother. Nate Parker and Common are fine as well (their best work is found in the only scene they share together), but this is really a female-driven show.
It would be my recommendation to ignore this film’s Rotten Tomatoes score and dive into its dangerous material. Every Secret Thing is about women – some who do very bad things and others who attempt to make sense of the cruelty. The film is a showcase for female talent, both behind and in front of the camera. Yes, do dive in, and quickly. A-
Every Secret Thing is currently playing in a handful of theaters, and also streaming on Amazon and iTunes