Friday, January 29, 2010

Mom at 16 (Lifetime, 2005)

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

This morning I watched my recording of an unusually good 2005 TV-movie from Lifetime, Mom at 16 (I missed the opening credits; has the title as Mom at Sixteen — spelled out — but Lifetime’s site had the numeral), which had some of the melodramatics and cheap plot contrivances of the typical Lifetime film — especially the typical Lifetime “problem” film (this was shown last weekend as one of a series of movies they were doing about teen pregnancies and the allegedly cavalier attitude modern teenagers, especially female ones, take towards the whole subject of sex and pregnancy, including a bizarre — given that this is the generation that has been sex-educated up the ying-yang — failure on the part of many of these girls to discern the connection between the two). But it also had some quite intense and moving aspects and had an unusually well constructed script by Nancey (that’s how the name is spelled on Silvers that effectively linked a main plot and a subplot that reflected and amplified it.

The central character is 16-year-old Jacey Jeffries (Danielle Panabaker), who got pregnant by Brad (Tyler Hynes), the 18-year-old engineering student she was dating. Since she had no way to raise a child herself, didn’t feel she could ask Brad the dad to give up his dreams of college and a high-paying career to marry her and help raise their son, and didn’t want to give up the child for adoption, her mom, Terry Jeffries (Mercedes Ruehl), agreed to pass off the child as her late-in-life baby — and to do that she hid Jacey away from the world for six months until she gave birth (leading at least one of the other characters in the film to guess that she had had a drug problem and was doing a major stay in rehab) and then moved the family — including Jacey’s 14-year-old sister, Macy (Clare Stone) — to another city and forced them to start anew in a new high school where they didn’t know anybody. Counterpointed to that is the story of the new high school’s swim coach, Bob Cooper (Colin Ferguson), and his wife Donna (Jane Krakowski) — who’s also a teacher there, though exactly what she teaches remains a bit of a mystery since about the only thing we actually see and hear discussed in her class is her students’ sex lives. The gimmick is that Bob and Donna are desperate to have a child, but have been unable to do so through normal means; their attempt to adopt got short-circuited when the birth mother decided at the last minute to keep her baby; and as the plot progresses Donna is undergoing an attempt to implant embryos following in vitro fertilization. To facilitate this she has to inject herself with hormones at least once a day — and there’s a grimly humorous scene in which Jacey stops by Donna’s office and sees her teacher shooting up.

Eventually the implantation fails, but in the meantime Jacey has made Donna her confidante, largely as a result of the horrible attitudes Jacey is having to deal with from her own mother, whose relentless judgmentalism and constant demand that her kids reassure her that she’s the most wonderful parent in the world and every decision she makes is 100 percent right (she reminded me of my mother!) is only making a dreadful situation even worse. From the moment the Coopers are revealed to be searching so desperately for a child we know that they’re going to end up adopting Jacey’s baby — which indeed happens at the end (though a major slip-up in Silvers’ script makes it seem that it’s sheer coincidence that an adoption agency happened to provide the Coopers with Jacey’s son; the ending would have worked better if Jacey herself had decided that these people, whom she had come to know well and trust, would be the right people to raise her child).

What made Mom at 16 unusually good for a Lifetime movie is its extraordinary dramatization of the way America’s culture, at once hypersexualized and hyper-prudish (something Charles pointed out to me not long ago), impresses its adolescents and how it leaves them virtually clueless in reconciling the drives of their hormones and the attempts by parents, teachers and other formal authority figures to convince them that sex is a big deal and shouldn’t be entered into without cognizance of the potential consequences, including pregnancy. (One of the girls in Donna’s class rather fliply tells the group that if she got pregnant she’d immediately arrange for an abortion — and the others chide her for her callousness, underscoring that unlike many of the social and values issues, abortion is one in which the younger you are the more anti-choice you’re likely to be.)

Director Peter Werner gets the film on and off the screen with a great deal of welcome restraint — no flanging effects, no hyper-cuts, a bit too much mediocre rock music on the soundtrack (and, since this is a 21st century youth movie, mediocre rap music as well) but otherwise a commendably low-keyed approach that trusts the story and Silvers’ script to tell themselves. Even the outrageously manipulative flash-forward at the end — where we see Charlie, now five years old, and his sister who is (unlike himself) the natural offspring of their previously childless parents — can’t entirely vitiate the good impression left by all that’s gone before. And Mom at 16 also deserves credit for working its moral lessons into the movie itself rather than dragging out a character actor or a real-life person on whom the story was based to give a little lecture at the end.