Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Natalee Holloway (Sony/Lifetime, 2009)

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

The show I watched this morning was Natalee Holloway, a Lifetime made-for-TV movie based upon the real case — the disappearance of a high-school girl from Mississippi with a pretentiously misspelled name on a vacation to Aruba, which previously I’d heard of only in the title of an Andrew Holleran novel, Nights in Aruba, which I’d never read. I hadn’t realized until the Natalee Holloway story broke (I hate to admit it, but the pretentious spelling of her first name always rankled me — if “Natalie” was good enough for Ms. Wood, why wasn’t it good enough for Mrs. Holloway, who by the time of her daughter’s disappearance had long since divorced Natalee’s dad and married a guy named Twitty?) that Aruba was actually a Dutch colony. One doesn’t expect to find colonies anywhere in the world in the 21st century, and indeed it turns out that at least according to this movie (scripted by one Teena Booth from Beth Holloway-Twitty’s own memoir) part of the problem was that the local Aruban authorities ran the police department but it was under the authority of the overall government, which was Dutch.

In case someone has been resting in tabloid-free heaven for the last five years and missed it all, the story was that Natalee and a bunch of her friends decided to celebrate their graduation from high school with a vacation in Aruba, and like all stupid teenage girls (and quite a few stupid older women as well!) in Lifetime movies, they got drunk, partied, either lost their virginity with some of the locals or came close to doing so (the fact that a lot of real high-school girls have sex before they graduate seems to have been lost on Ms. Booth — or maybe on Mrs. Twitty née Holloway, for that matter) and went home somewhat the worse for wear, except for Natalee who never got home at all. She simply disappeared — the last her friend Hayley (Natasha Loring) saw Natalee (Amy Gumenick, who’s seen throughout the movie in various flashbacks dramatizing the differing accounts of what happened to her — and who can’t be credited with either a good or a bad performance since all that was required of her was to play an airhead and then a victim), she had got in a car with three strange men and driven off with them under the mistaken idea that they were going to drive her back to her hotel.

Instead they took her to the beach and either let her pass out there or gave her a drug, whereupon they either had sex with her (consensually or otherwise) or they didn’t, and either killed her or left her to die or left her alive. It can’t have been easy for either writer Booth or director Mikael Salomon (which gives him at least one thing in common with his title character: a pretentiously spelled first name!) to make a movie about a story this open-ended, in which nobody really knows for sure quite what happened (“Somebody knows the truth,” ran the advertising copy for this film, but it sure wasn’t the filmmakers themselves!), but it didn’t help that they made most of the characters such ninnies we didn’t really care what happened to them — and that included Natalee herself, who we were told was incredibly intelligent and wanted to be a doctor but comes off as such an idiot one ends up entertaining the dreadful idea that maybe it was a good thing she disappeared off the world before carrying on her sorry-ass airhead genes to another generation.

The film attempts to grapple with some of the interesting themes raised by the real story — the effects of the media (for both good and ill) on the search, the clash between American and Aruban values, the influence the prime suspect supposedly had to evade responsibility since his father was an Aruban judge (they relocated to the home country, the Netherlands, after he was more or less cleared by the Aruban authorities and freed to go) and the contrast between the sheer physical beauty of the setting and the horror of the events that took place there — but it doesn’t really do more than touch on them. (Needless to say, the filmmakers weren’t allowed anywhere near Aruba — and, rather than do their location work at another Caribbean island, they trekked all the way to Cape Town, South Africa, maybe so they could find Afrikaans-speaking whites to stand in for the Dutch-descended people on the real Aruba.) The accents are also a bit strange — especially the silly one used by Sean Higgs as the corpulent chief detective, Frank Sneider, which makes one wonder how a white person running a police force in a Dutch colony ends up with a Frito Bandito version of a Latino accent — but what makes this film almost worth watching in spite of the silliness, the incredibly unsympathetic characterizations and the fallback on Lifetime (and other people’s) clichés, is the powerful performance by Tracy Pollan as Beth.

An comment by Michael Elliott dissed her acting, but I found her legitimately powerful, nailing each of her big emotional moments and showing the trauma of not only losing your daughter but not knowing for sure what happened to her and facing a wall of official indifference on one side and media exploitation on the other. (When Beth gets a false tip that Natalee is being held inside a crack house — we’re told that gangs in Aruba hold rich white tourists hostage, feed them drugs and keep them there until they’ve extracted their ATM cards and code numbers and drained their bank accounts — the media come along for the ride, and Beth’s fury at them for denying her a private moment with her daughter only gets worse when she finds she’s been fed a bum steer.) Whatever its defects in other respects, Booth’s script gives Beth a series of intense scenes — when she finds a private place to pray just so she can feel God’s presence; when she confronts one of the principal suspects at the copy store where he works and says she’ll be bringing in a photo of Natalee every day until he comes clean about her disappearance and his role in it; later, back home, when the stresses of Natalee’s disappearance break up her marriage and leave Natalee’s younger brother Matt (Kai Coetzee) traumatized; and the final sequence in which a Dutch crime reporter entraps the lead suspect, Joran Van Der Sloot (Jacques Strydom) into a videotaped confession by sending a staff member to pose as a potential partner in a drug-dealing enterprise and film him inside an SUV with hidden cameras (at least two hidden cameras, since director Salomon and film editor Sidney Wolinsky do conventional shot-reverse shot editing in the confession scene) and then shows it to Beth on live TV in Amsterdam — later Joran repudiates the confession but Beth accepts it as true and finally gains (that horrible word!) “closure” — and Pollan plays them all to the hilt, making us forget she’s an actress and getting us to accept her as a grief-stricken mother desperately searching for the truth about her daughter.

Incidentally, there’s a rather ham-handed epilogue in which both Pollan and the real Beth Holloway-Twitty tell young Americans taking exotic vacations in foreign lands to plan out their evenings ahead of time and stick to their plans (the most jarringly dumb ending to a film since Thea von Harbou implored the parents in her audience to “watch your children” at the end of her then-husband Fritz Lang’s film M) — and (memo to Charles) the real Beth pronounces the “t” in “often.”