‘Every Secret Thing’
Director:
Amy Berg
Stars: Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

There’s a lot of ideas and name actors in “Every Secret Thing,” but also very little screentime and money. It wants to be a study of punishment and how reluctant we are to allow criminals, even child criminals, a second life. And on top of that it wants to study bad parenting, the inefficiency of juvenile delinquent programs, class and even, when it has time, a portrait of black-on-black racism. It also, every now and then, becomes a satire of fame. Nearly every role is filled by a fine actor, so we know this aims to be legit. It even has a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener, taking a break from writing astutely observed, wryly funny character studies — like “Walking and Talking,” “Lovely & Amazing” and “Enough Said” — to adapt Laura Lippman’s sprawling, very serious book. And all this must be crammed inside an indie the size of a Kind Bar, and about as expensive.

And yet sometimes “Every Secret Thing” almost manages to be of a piece, if you strain hard and grant it some serious leeway. The central idea is sound and noble; it’s a film vying to examine how the past lives on in, and sometimes destroys, the present. At the center of an Altmanesque spread of characters are Alice and Ronnie (Danielle Macdonald and Dakota Fanning), two teens recently released from a long juvie stint for a heinous crime when they were kids: kidnapping, and accidentally killing, an infant. As it happens, another infant has just been kidnapped. It’s likely they had nothing to do with it, but that doesn’t stop a detective (Elizabeth Banks), the very one who busted them before, from knocking on their door. They also have to deal with their well-meaning but terrible wino of a mother (Diane Lane), while Banks’ dic has to deal with a live-in boyfriend who thinks she works too much.

Related: Diane Lane talks to us about "Every Secret Thing," parenting, young actors and Hollywood

To her credit, Holofcener keeps these parts moving around; the plot twists are well-placed and even with a vast ensemble it never loses sight of key characters. It’s still hermetically designed and the constricted production is not kind to stars or filmmakers. Director Amy Berg is a documentarian (“Deliver Us From Evil,” the West Memphis Three doc “West of Memphis”), and while the material taps into many of her pet themes, the actual shooting of it does not seem to play to her talents. She mostly tries to just get through scenes as quickly and efficiently as possible, straining hard not to disguise the cheapness. It’s hard. Most of the film unfolds in a sprawling house, a nondescript apartment, an even less descript office building and in front of a food truck that very well could be the production's craft services. The kidnapping itself happens off-screen in the middle of a scene, with professional actors (including Common) suddenly forced to express dismay at nothing at all and reduced, through no fault of their own, to amateurs..

Sometimes it’s easy to ignore all this, thanks to the actors and to a script that still hits the right buttons, even if all it has time to do is hit them. It’s sympathetic to all of its characters, and very sympathetic to the idea of trying to start again with a massive albatross weighing on one’s back. While Macdonald plays Alice as someone forcibly ignoring her backstory, killing days with reality television and parading around her neighborhood, Fanning’s Ronnie has disappeared completely inside herself. Everyone underplays, even Lane, who stops short of going Mommie Dearest, even if she doesn’t have the screentime to make her more drastic character decisions believable. After all, the plot gears have to always move, always make it to the finale, which shifts in a more broad direction that it can’t quite earn. It's a film with huge ambitions and reams of talent hogtied by limited resources. Then again, you try getting much money for a largely female-driven, female-made drama on a downer subject, no matter how important.

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