Mystery scribe Laura Lippman worked as a journalist before shifting her focus to fiction, just as filmmaker Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil,” “West of Memphis”) began in documentaries before adapting Lippman’s novel “Every Secret Thing.” The analogies end there, however, since Berg’s narrative debut lacks much in the way of either poetry or realism, leaving only the clunky dynamics of a fairly predictable missing-persons case — for which screenwriter Nicole Holofcener carries at least part of the blame. Despite its name cast, short of a significant re-edit, not much can save what feels like a Lifetime version of “The Lovely Bones.”
Though the title promises big revelations, “Every Secret Thing” delivers only two twists — one at the beginning, the other at the end. Eight-year-olds Alice and Ronnie (Brynne Norquist and Eva Grace Kellner) are the kind of girls who get picked on by the more popular kids in school. But rather than being victimized, it is they who do the unforgivable, stealing a baby from its stroller on the way home from an especially humiliating birthday party experience. This much we learn not from the footage, which is inexplicably jumbled for effect, but rather via a series of expository headlines presented beneath the opening credits (including one that identifies the infant as “granddaughter of the city’s first black judge”).
Auds will need that information to make sense of the rest of the film, which takes place 10 years later, shortly after Alice (who put on weight behind bars and is now played by Danielle Macdonald) and Ronnie (Dakota Fanning, who merely put on mascara) are released from prison. Cracking the case catapulted policewoman Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks, badly miscast) to detective a decade earlier, though finding the already-dead baby traumatized her to such a degree that she’s sworn off “have you seen this child” cases ever since. They bring on agonizingly incomplete flashbacks.
The pic’s second twist involves the same crime and explains why Berg must be so coy about what really happened all those years ago. When another mixed-race baby goes missing, theories swirl: Porter’s partner (Nate Parker) immediately suspects the child’s African-American stepfather (Common), while Porter can’t help thinking the disappearance is connected to Alice and Ronnie. Still, there’s not much either detective can do to investigate, since the mystery can only be resolved by the director, who holds all the cards and decides when to reveal important information.
Perhaps that’s one reason why both Banks and Parker look so awkward, about as convincing as those officer-impersonating strippers who show up at the door in tear-away Velcro uniforms. Frankly, such inauthenticity is shocking coming from Berg, who must have observed some actual detective work during the making of her true-crime docu about the West Memphis Three. By contrast, “Every Secret Thing” is surprisingly stylized, from the oddly sunny-looking lensing by Rob Hardy (whose instincts must have been overruled, considering his grittier work on the “Red Riding” trilogy) to the cheeky narration supplied by Alice’s character (who seems to be channeling the semi-satirical vibe of Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For”).
Berg wasn’t the only first-timer involved in the project, which marks Frances McDormand’s inaugural effort as producer (she also has “Olive Kitteridge” coming via HBO). It would have been fun to see the actress in the pic’s juiciest role, that of Alice’s crazy-making mother, Helen, though those duties fall to Diane Lane, whose deliciously campy performance proves to be the secret weapon in this otherwise banal affair.