Sunday, January 31, 2010

Do You Know Me? (RHI/Lifetime, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched Do You Know Me?, a 2009 TV-movie Lifetime showed last weekend right after Mom at 16. Alas, after the beauty and power of Mom at 16 (despite its dull and clinical title), Do You Know Me? came closer to the common run of Lifetime movies: a preposterous plot, insanely melodramatic screenwriting and a decent damsel-in-distress performance by the lead (Rachelle Lefèvre from the Twilight movies) that doesn’t make up for what the screenwriters (Susan Hoffman and Oliver Butcher) and director (Penelope Buitenhuis) put her through in what’s a perfect example of what Maureen Dowd called Lifetime’s “pussies in peril” genre.

Basically it’s a wanna-be film noir in which Lefèvre’s character, Elsa “Ell” Carter, a recent college graduate with an interest in becoming a newspaper photographer, returns home to a suburb of Seattle and her parents David (Ted Whittall) and Anna (Lynda Boyd) Carter and their other (younger) daughter Isabel (Victoria Duffield). She’s spending a lot of time in Seattle trying to get a newspaper job and also seeing her boyfriend Chris Mayfield (Nic Rhind), son of a media magnate who offers to get her dad a better job than the one he has editing a small suburban throwaway. Then her life changes when she sees a cardboard milk carton with a picture of a three-year-old girl and the slogan, “Do you know me?,” while she’s at Chris’s home with him and a mutual friend, a young Asian woman who disappears from the story from then on.

They joke that the picture of the three-year-old girl on the milk carton (did anyone bother to tell Ms. Hoffman and Mr. Butcher that the vogue for putting missing children’s pictures on milk cartons ended about a decade ago?) looks like Elsa, and they put a drunken call into the hotline number on the milk-carton ad — setting into motion a very nasty series of events in which Elsa’s parents instantly get mean and defensive; her boyfriend Chris is murdered in his apartment; Elsa is instantly suspected of the crime and has to flee, first to White Rock (a fictitious California town which appears to be in north San Diego County, since the announcement that the train is going there is followed by a listing for genuine North County towns like Carlsbad and Encinitas, followed by San Diego itself — and the paper Elsa reads while there is the fictitious San Diego Globe) and then back north again to San Francisco. She ends up mixed up with Alec Rooker (Dean Wray), apparently a hit man hired by her dad; Donald Kentor (Malcolm Stewart), a candidate for U.S. Senator ( mistakenly lists the character as a Senator already); his chief of staff, Joe Drescott (Kevin McNulty), who turns out to be Elsa’s birth father (earlier she’s had her DNA checked against her parents’ by a sympathetic physician at the hospital where she works and find that they’re not biologically related at all); and Drug Enforcement Agency agents Jake Farber (Jeremy London) and Fred Lashley (Adrian Dorval), who are apparently after a 20-year-old open case of a major quantity of cocaine that had been shipped in from Mexico.

The plot has the predictable reversal in that Farber turns out not to be a DEA agent at all, but the principal villain — he’s Elsa’s estranged brother, who was left to take the rap in a Mexican prison (and was raped the first day he was there — given how cute Jeremy London is I don’t doubt it), while a second brother died when the balloon of cocaine he was told to swallow to avoid detection burst inside him and led to his O.D. Lashley is a real DEA agent but he’s decided to go corrupt and provide Farber a fake DEA identity in return for half the money from the stash Farber is going after — only Farber, who already murdered Elsa’s boyfriend Chris (ya remember Chris?), shoots Lashley and Drescott to avoid having to share the money with them and holds the Carters hostage, stringing up Elsa’s sister Isabel (ya remember Isabel?) until Elsa rescues her sister by getting hold of a gun and drilling Farber with a perfect policeman’s shot to his heart. (Where’d she get that good with guns? Had Hoffman and Butcher established early on that she was a markswoman as a hobby — the way Charles Bennett and D. B. Wyndham-Lewis did with Edna Best’s character in the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much — at least this part of the plot might have made sense.)

Do You Know Me? has one genuinely poignant scene — when Elsa traces Tina Baseli (Gina Chiarelli), who turns out to be a crack addict, having drifted into drugs following the disappearance of her daughter (which she never got over), and who righteously refuses to cash any of the guilt checks her ex-husband Marsaretti (a.k.a. Joe Drescott) sends her because they’re blood money — and had the writers been able to tame the melodramatics and give us more scenes like this one, Do You Know Me? might have been genuinely moving and exciting instead of just another mindless Lifetime thriller.