Producer Frances McDormand, a supreme talent who doesn’t act in this film version of Laura Lippman’s unnerving 2003 mystery novel, had this to say about why she decided to help bring Every Secret Thing to the screen: “I wanted to make a movie about a group of irredeemable women,” giving her last two words an emphatic snap. Point taken. The movie, directed by documentarian Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) from a script by Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said), doesn’t coddle audiences by giving them much to root for. Maybe that’s why reviews for the film have been mixed to worse. I say give this toxic valentine to Mother’s Day sentiment a chance.
Even when it dawdles too much over forensics and then rushes to wrap things up, Every Secret Thing bristles with a toxic energy that commands attention. Tops among the high-powered cast is the extraordinary Diane Lane, who nails every nuance in the role of Helen Manning, a teacher and single mother who lives with what she believes is her biggest embarrassment — her daughter Alice. At age 8, Alice (Brynne Norquist) and her friend Ronnie (Eva Grace Kellner) were convicted of murdering a mixed-race infant. A decade later, Alice, now played Danielle Macdonald, is an overweight underachiever. She and Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) steer clear of each other in their small town. But the past comes back to slap them in the face when another mixed-race baby goes missing.
That’s when Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks), a cop on the first case, starts nosing around with her partner Detective Jones (Nate Parker). It’s an unwieldy load of plot, not all of it compelling. But watching Helen lash out at her daughter without a word about her weight or criminal intent —it’s all in her eyes and attitude — rivets attention. Macdonald and Fanning are expert at giving expression to the feelings and resentments not found in the dialogue. Which one of these women is the most irredeemable? Coming to grips with that question is what gives the flawed but fascinating Every Secret Thing its power to haunt.