Every Secret Thing, a clammy little thriller about missing babies and bad family karma, bristles with heavy female artillery on both sides of the camera, most of it working unaccustomed turf. The script, adapted from a detective novel by Laura Lippman, is by Nicole Holofcener, whose usual territory is wisecracking urban comedies. The executive producer is actress Frances McDormand, who got the project off the ground and recruited documentary filmmaker Amy Berg to direct. And the ensemble is stacked with Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks, Dakota Fanning and a fresh talent to watch, Danielle MacDonald, who's terrific as a fat teenager who's either a victim or a very bad seed.
The movie's few men are ancillary at best, which ensures that Every Secret Thing has the Bechdel test more than covered. Alas, that's not enough to lift the action out of a rather nerveless ennui that dampens the wicked promise of maternal instincts bent way out of shape. Banks is capable but wanly conceived as Detective Nancy Porter, a small-town cop with little more to her personality than a discreet sadness that, years earlier, she was unable to save a kidnapped baby from dying of neglect, or cruelty, or both, at the hands of two marginalized little girls from the wrong side of the tracks. Now these two, who were never exactly BFFs, are home from seven years in a correctional institute, and another child has disappeared.
That both the missing children are biracial seems to be important, as do the class inequalities that divide putative victims from alleged perps. Perhaps these differences led somewhere thematically significant in Lippman's novel. Here, they just sit there with little to say for themselves beyond, look, folks, at our brave new multi-culti world. That seems like a missed opportunity given Berg's dramatic flair, married to a sharp radar for the institutional roots of individual wrongdoing, in her non-fiction work. The understated dread that powered her Deliver Us From Evil, a profile of a pedophile Catholic priest and his enablers, is repeated to far drearier effect here in a fictional tale so twisted, it sits up and begs for black comedy, or maybe a director from Down Under.
More comfortable with straight-ahead tragedy, Berg drags the action dutifully back and forth in time, building all too slowly to the big reveal. She does have terrific help from Lane, who's icy with just the right edge of hysteria as the "artistic" single mother who seems to prefer her fat daughter Alice's slender friend Ronnie, with nasty results. As for the girls, Channing is nicely held-back as the secretive Ronnie, hiding behind raccoon makeup and a poker face that masks bottomless need. The real find, though, is newcomer MacDonald, who wakes the film right up every time she enters the frame and fires off the catty zingers for which Holofcener is justly known. No victim, she: Alice is a piece of work who turns out to have studied hard in the school of Mom. She is her own brand of heavenly creature, and she saves this earnest movie from its long-faced self.