by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
This morning I also watched a surprisingly intriguing TV-movie on Lifetime with the odd title Accused at 17 — they gave it its premiere showing on the network last Saturday, May 1, programming it right after the previously screened Dead at 17 because of their similar titles. For the first half-hour or so this film was so vapid one got the impression it could have been called When Valley Girls Go Bad — it basically alternates between two sources of angst in the life of high-school senior Bianca (Nicole Gale Anderson). One plot strand concerns Bianca’s troubled relationship with her mother, Jacqui (Cynthia Gibb, top-billed); it takes us a while before writers Ken Sanders (story) and Lifetime reliable Christine Conradt (script) bother to explain to us why the mother-daughter relationship is so troubled, but eventually we learn that Bianca’s parents broke up after Jacqui discovered that Bianca’s dad was having an affair, refused to forgive him, threw him out of the house — and afterwards he died in an apartment fire, so Bianca has never forgiven her mom for causing her dad’s death. (Can you say “Electra complex”?)
Bianca’s other problem is at school; she’s friends with Fallyn Werner (Janet Montgomery) and Sarah Patterson (Stella Maeve), and they’re trying to get her to go to a big weekend party at which there’ll be enough booze to launch the entire Pacific Fleet (given Lifetime’s penchant for movies about the problem of teenage drinking it’s surprising that this script takes such a cavalier attitude about it) — only Bianca can’t go because that night her mom’s boyfriend, Trevor Lautten (Jason Brooks, a better-looking guy than the lanky, sandy-haired male blanks Lifetime usually casts in roles like this), has invited Bianca to eat with them at his house and has had lobsters and other exotic foods flown in for the occasion. So Bianca endures Trevor’s “stupid” dinner party — and Bianca’s boyfriend Chad (Reiley McClendon, who looks like an odd cross between a young John Lennon and a young Jay Leno) gets waylaid in the bathroom by the school’s “fast” girl, Dory Holland (Lindsay Taylor), who goes after him sexually (she’s clearly the aggressor, because in a hot soft-core porn scene nicely staged by director Doug Campbell she’s shown unzipping his pants, obviously preparing to give him head) and stays with him 45 minutes, long enough to do the dirty deed. The next day Fallyn and Sarah tell Bianca that Chad cheated on her with Dory, and they goad Bianca into leaving a threatening message on Chad’s cell phone and then concoct a rather nasty revenge plot.
Claiming to be taking Dory to a party with college-age frat boys, they drive her out to a deserted canyon (which looks quite like one of the old Republic Western locations, making one wonder where John Wayne is when Dory clearly needs him) and intend to strand her there. Bianca, who drove out separately from the car containing Fallyn, Sarah and Dory, angrily shoves Dory to the ground after Dory throws a rock at her (Dory throws it from behind but it still lands on Bianca’s forehead), and after Bianca leaves Fallyn bashes Dory’s head in with a rock and then she and Sarah realize that Fallyn has killed Dory. They plot to cover it up by swearing each other to secrecy, but the police assigned to investigate Dory’s disappearance (which becomes a murder investigation after a couple of hikers — a Black man and a white woman, and it’s an indication of how far we’ve come racially that the combination is treated routinely and raises no particular eyebrows — find Dory’s body in the canyon) quickly trace it to Bianca after Chad plays them her threatening message on his cell phone. Thus Bianca is “accused at 17” and Fallyn and Sarah plot a cover-up by lying — and getting their parents to lie for them — that they were at Fallyn’s place watching DVD’s all day Saturday. It gets nastier as Fallyn finds Dory’s hair clip in her car and plants it in Bianca’s to frame her outright — and when Sarah gets a note from Jacqui and decides to stop covering up for her friend and go to the police with the truth (that Dory was still alive when Bianca left the scene and it was Fallyn who killed her), Fallyn murders her by withholding Sarah’s asthma medication and firing her inhaler into the air, exhausting it, as Sarah goes into an asthma attack that, without the inhaler, quickly turns fatal.
It’s the most chilling scene in the film, and it also leads to Fallyn’s final comeuppance when she reveals to Jacqui and her own parents (William R. Moses and Barbara Niven) that she knew Sarah died in her back yard (something Jacqui, who went to Sarah’s home but arrived too late to save her, hadn’t mentioned) — and an hysterical finale in which Fallyn pulls a gun on her own father but can’t pull the trigger, so dad grabs the gun away from her and they turn her over to the police. As silly as a lot of it is, Accused at 17 gains from Campbell’s straightforward, un-flashy direction and even more from Janet Montgomery’s superb performance — she actually convinces us that her character has turned from a rather bratty teenager to an out-and-out psychopath and she’s mastered the chilling look of silent indifference that powered many of the great femme fatale performances in 1940’s film noir. This type of story frequently shows a villain who’s more interesting than the hero, and so it does here — Nicole Gale Anderson’s acting is pretty wimpy and she and Cynthia Gibb hardly look like one could have begotten the other, but Montgomery’s work here establishes her as an actress to watch.