Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Daughter’s Secret (Capital/Lifetime, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards I watched a Lifetime movie I’d recorded Sunday: My Daughter’s Secret.which sounded like it might have had an interesting premise — suburban single mom Denise (Jennifer Grant) finds that her just-about-to-go-to-college daughter Justine (Nina Dobrev) has been taking a few too many walks on the wild side and is in trouble with the law, and she’s torn between her desire to help her daughter and her duty as a citizen. Alas, My Daughter’s Secret turned out to be considerably milder than the publicity made it sound, and it was one of those horrible stories (the writer was Christine Conradt) where the entire plot is dependent on the central character — Justine — being such an idiot that it’s hard to work up so much sympathy for anyone who would behave so stupidly and keep blowing her chances to get out of her own situation.

In the backstory, Justine has been dating a tall, blond, baby-faced (I kept wondering throughout the movie just how he shaves so closely — or maybe the actor was too young to need to shave at all!) high-school dropout named Brent (Steve Byers). As the film opens Justine is sneaking out of her house — she lives with her mom and mom, in one of the wisest moves anyone in this film has made, has forbidden her to see Brent, a dictate Our Teenage Heroine is, not surprisingly, ignoring — only to find that he’s picked her up in a green SUV he borrowed from the auto body repair shop where he and his brother Reggie (James Gilbert — he’s shorter than Byers, has dark hair and a craggier face; they’re not at all believable as brothers, but that’s the least of this movie’s problems) work; Reggie is with them; and before they socialize there’s a minor little errand Reggie and Brent have to run. The minor little errand turns out to be sticking up the jewelry store where Justine’s mom Denise works — they hired Denise just after Justine’s dad left her and the owners, Albert (Norman Mikeal Berketa) and Frank (whom we never see) and Brent pumped Justine for information about the store’s security systems and also about when they’d have a particularly valuable bit of merchandise it would be especially profitable to steal.

In the course of the robbery Reggie shoots Albert — who at first seems like the sort of fat, pig-like man who usually owns jewelry stores in movies, though later on as we see him lingering in the hospital for about half the rest of the film until he finally expires, it becomes clear that as lousy a first impression as he made, we’re really supposed to like him. The robbery is reported to the police by Denise, who just happened to be in the store’s offices, covering for a night-shift employee (jewelry stores have night shifts?) who was out that day, and Brent keeps Justine from going either to the police or her mom by frightening her and telling her (accurately) that just by having been there and stayed in the car when Reggie told her they needed her to be the “lookout,” she’s as guilty as they are and in jeopardy of being prosecuted as an accessory to murder.

Justine’s biggest mistake was made at the very beginning, when Reggie and Brent left her in the car alone and went in to rob the store. Did she take out her cell phone and call the police? Did she run out of the car? Did she think of driving the car away, stranding the would-be robbers and seeking help from the law? No, she did none of those; she just sat there, either because she was frozen with fear or because she was so loyal to Brent that she wasn’t going to go against him even when he was robbing a jewelry store, and her mom’s employer at that. Throughout the rest of the movie Justine blows off virtually every chance she gets to extricate herself from the situation — Conradt seems to want us to believe she’s got such a bad case of the hots for Brent that she’s willing to do anything, including risking prison, for him, but she’s nowhere near a good enough writer to make us accept that — and My Daughter’s Secret becomes an excessively dull way to spend an hour and a half watching an asinine ninny just dig herself deeper into trouble.

My Daughter’s Secret has a good director, Douglas Jackson, who gets the possessory credit (“A Douglas Jackson Film”) and deserves it; he’s got a flair for dark urban atmosphere (the dramatic lighting of the nighttime scenes is quite beautiful and a far better solution for how to do film noir in color than the dirty green-and-brown look that for some reason has become standard), and he’s also an effective suspense director — but he’s up against the dull, underwritten Conradt script that ignores all the subtleties and nuances this story could have had and at plot point after plot point goes for the easiest, most clichéd resolutions. The hapless actors in this thing do the best they can — Jennifer Grant (Cary’s daughter, by the way) deserves a purple heart for having to play such a lame role as the all-knowing mom who recognizes she can’t run her daughter’s life but still gives it a try — and the two guys are at least cute (and though they’re supposed to be playing brothers they give off body language that makes them look more like a Gay couple — perhaps Conradt should have made Reggie Gay and Brent Bi, making his affair with Justine more opportunistic than romantic — as it stands she never bothered to decide whether Brent was just using Justine or was genuinely in love with her; instead, she tried to write it both ways), but Dobrev goes through the whole movie with a hangdog expression on her face and neither the threat of prison nor the withdrawal of that threat at the end seems to disturb her sang-froid in the slightest.