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Amy Berg and Nicole Holofcener take on the paperback thrills of Every Secret Thing

Call it Gone, Baby Girl, Gone. Documentarian Amy Berg’s dramatic feature debut Every Secret Thing features the abductions of not one, but two female infants seven years apart. The first was snatched by two young girls who were sentenced to jail time in the wake of her death; the second disappears shortly after the pair have been released back into the small town rocked by the original crime.

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The question of whether the now-teenaged parolees should be considered persons of interest in the new case is very much on the mind of investigator Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks), who has been living with the trauma of discovering the body of the first victim. These are the sorts of nifty coincidences that screenwriter Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) had to deal with when she signed on to modify Laura Lippman’s best-selling novel for the screen, and if we were feeling generous, we could say that she wrestles the source material to a draw. At times, the film’s pot boileth over, but only in between periods of carefully maintained percolation. An early scene where Nancy and her bad-cop partner (Nate Parker) interrogate the abductee’s mother (Sara Sokolovic) and father (Common) is tense and affecting, with plenty of space for the actors to show their stuff.

Elsewhere, however, the details are suffocatingly contrived. Top-billed Diane Lane does what she can with her role as the mother of one of the suspects, but ends up undermined by the unlikeliness of the character’s behavior. Dakota Fanning is fine as one of the girls adjusting to life on the outside—she does well to suggest the toll that an act of naive cruelty has taken on a post-adolescent conscience—while in a showier role as her childhood accomplice, newcomer Danielle Macdonald is hard to pin down. Her Alice Manning, severely overweight and harboring strange fantasies of stardom, is constructed as a mostly sympathetic figure. But in a story as self-consciously tricky as this one, the appearance of innocence scans as deeply suspicious.

Berg (West Of Memphis) has clearly drawn on her nonfiction background for visual inspiration, employing a handheld camera to consolidate a sense of lived-in realism that’s too often at odds with the contortions of the plot. To its writer’s and director’s shared credit, Every Secret Thing seems to be resisting the trashiness that other paperback adaptations give themselves over to gratefully. It’s interesting to watch a genre film in which male characters are consistently pushed out of the foreground (in one case, so far toward the back that it seems like a cheat). Every Secret Thing doesn’t feel like it fell off an assembly line, but that’s not saying that it’s been skillfully engineered. By the end, its rickety narrative architecture collapses entirely, leaving a lot of good actors stranded in the rubble.

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