Overview: Seven years after two 11-year-old girls charged with kidnapping and killing a baby, another young child goes missing and the girls, now adults, once again find themselves targeted as suspects despite their claims of innocence. Hyde Park Entertainment/Likely Story; 2015; Rated R; 93 minutes.
Breaking Procedure: Almost from the beginning, Amy J. Berg’s film, based on the novel by Laura Lippman, announces itself as a markedly different procedural thriller/mystery film. Berg’s cast is entirely comprised of female leads, and the majority of the supporting characters are black. Adding to this realistic depiction of the world in which we live is the fact that nearly all the couples in the film are biracial. This isn’t a film set in black neighborhoods, or a major metropolitan city; this is anywhere, America, populated with suburbs, malls, and country clubs. If I seem surprised by all this, it’s because I am. I rarely see films that look like this one, at least not ones that aren’t pigeon-holed into the category of “black film” or “female film.” While these surface details alone are not enough to make for a good film, the largely female and minority cast, the female director, the female screenwriter, the female producer (Frances McDormand) all inform the story, adding psychological elements that are usually nonexistent in films of this ilk.
Gone Baby Gone: Dakota Fanning and Danielle Macdonald both give calculated performances as the two young women who spent seven years in juvie for crimes they claim not to have committed. They are both sympathetic in their own right yet make for fitting suspects, with each having ample (and chilling) reason to commit the crime. Elizabeth Banks’ performance as a detective suffering from PTSD keeps the film grounded and moving forward. It’s not the kind of powerhouse, dialogue-heavy performance we typically see with male actors in these roles. Instead it’s arguably a more difficult kind of acting, a quiet, thoughtful, composure that’s less concerned with scene stealing and more so with creating a sense of realism. Diane Lane easily gets the best role in the film as the mother of one of the accused. It’s a character that could have become like something wrenched from a Lifetime movie, but Lane gives her complexities that ultimately make her the standout character in the film. Together, all of these characters are missing persons in their own right. They are society’s rejected, unseen women and the film takes as much time to explore the ramifications of female body image, jealousy, romance, guilt, and relationships between mothers and daughters as it does on the missing person’s case that drives the plot.
Shadow Women: The darkness in Every Secret Thing is at times overwhelming, and it’s nearly impossible not to illicit some form of emotional response. The lasting unease is created by Berg’s decisions of what to show and what to keep in the corner, just out of sight. Every Secret Thing is a bloodless film, one that opts to place its focus on the wounds of the mind instead of the wounds of the flesh. Berg and screenwriter Nicole Holofcener may deliver a few TV show-esque plot points and twists when it comes to the crime, but in the end they also give us something far more unnerving than simply a villain—a look at the kind of power women can hold over each other. We need more directors willing to take chances like Amy J. Berg, and we need more films that show the kind of investment to diversity, in all its forms, that Every Secret Thing does.