Mere weeks after two teenaged girls are released after seven years in juvenile detention for the horrific kidnap and killing of a baby, another little girl — one who bears a striking resemblance to the dead child — goes missing. Did they commit another murder? (Did they even both commit the first crime? Each is still placing all the blame entirely on the other.) Or does their small upstate New York town merely want this new kidnapping to be their doing?
With Every Secret Thing, documentarian Amy Berg makes her feature debut with a slow burn of a mystery, one that takes cues from her amazing fact-based films, Deliver Us from Evil (about a pedophile priest) and West of Memphis (about teens unjustly convicted of child murder): the banality of evil, the inequities of the criminal justice system, the abuse that can occur when those who are supposed to love and protect the innocent and vulnerable don’t have the best intentions at heart. This isn’t an easy film, not in any way: its pace is contemplative and deliberate; it’s more about puzzling out personality than it is a police procedural; and perhaps most uncomfortably for some viewers, all the major players are female.
We are not used to seeing in our movies what we see here. We don’t see little girls doing such bad things, and though it’s rare in the real world for tween gradeschoolers like Alice Manning (Brynne Norquist) and Ronnie Fuller (Eva Grace Kellner) to commit terrible crimes, it does happen. We may be used to teenaged mean girls onscreen, but they are nothing like the 18-year-old Alice (Danielle Macdonald: The East) and Ronnie (Dakota Fanning: Night Moves, Very Good Girls), whose experience in juvenile detention has left them scarred in different ways that aren’t obvious to anyone who doesn’t look closely, yet informs all of their behavior. We don’t see mothers like Alice’s, Helen (Diane Lane: Man of Steel, Secretariat), who seems to prefer Ronnie — who isn’t even a friend of Alice’s! — to her own daughter. And we don’t see cops like Detective Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks: Pitch Perfect 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I), who was instrumental in solving the first baby’s disappearance and now finds herself obsessed with finding the missing toddler still alive, hopefully.
None of these women is particularly likable. Our sympathies for them wax and wane as their secrets, past and present, unfold for us. The preconceptions that we — the collective “we,” our society in general — make about women based on what they look like and what they should or should not do merely because they’re women get turned over and around in ways that we have to accept if we’re to acknowledge that women occupy the same full spectrum of good and evil, stable and messed up, well adjusted or falling apart, and everything in between, that men do (and that men have been allowed to occupy onscreen). The script, by Nicole Holofcener, delves with calculated disquietude into areas that will strike raw nerves in many women: body issues; the maternal “instinct”; how to cope with being emotional and professional at the same time. The performances are chilling, especially those from Macdonald and Lane as they enact their damaged mother-daughter relationship, and do not wholly jibe with what women are “supposed” to be.
Perhaps most unlikely — and, for some viewers, unlikable — is how these women are bitter, angry, and haunted. Real women know what that means. But we’ve rarely seen that onscreen as we do in Every Secret Thing. The secrets here aren’t so much the details of the crimes it explores but the truths about women’s emotional lives that are too often ignored, covered up, or denied by mainstream pop culture.