Saturday, May 8, 2010

Dead at 17 (Lifetime, 2008)

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

The movie I picked out was Dead at 17, a 2008 TV-movie shown on the Lifetime channel in early 2009 and again last weekend just before the premiere showing of Accused at 17, which had more in common with it than just a title concept: both were written by Christine Conradt and both had similar themes — spoiled suburban teens whose sense of entitlement leads them to commit murder, first in the heat of anger and then in premeditated fashion to keep intact their cover-up of the initial crime. Dead at 17 deals with Jason (Matthew Raudsepp) and his friends Cody (John Bregar), Ty (Kyle Switzer) and Cody’s brother Gabe (Justin Bradley). The film intercuts their stories with those of their parents; Jason and Ty are both being raised by single mothers (albeit well-off single mothers in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia — “played,” as usual in a Lifetime movie, by a Canadian city, in this case Montreal) while Cody and Gabe are being raised by their dad, Curt Masterson (Linden Ashby), and their trophy-wife stepmom Dominique (Sophie Gendron). Curt is the CEO of an important if not necessarily huge corporation and he’s grooming Cody for eventual succession, and Cody is a computer whiz who’s been able to make himself a fake I.D. and get into a local strip club.

At the outset of the film Cody has hired a stripper for a private party he’s throwing with Gabe, Ty and Jason; the stripper, who calls herself Becca (Dani Kind), stays 15 minutes over her allotted hour mainly because she thinks Jason is cute. Cody gets pissed that the $500 he paid for her doesn’t include actual sex — and when Becca pushes him away as he’s trying to rape her, Cody pushes her down a flight of stairs and kills her. Jason wants them to report the crime to the police but Cody says they all are highly privileged people and their lives are far more important than some “skank whore.” So they plot to cover up the crime by dumping the body in a nearby lake (director Douglas Jackson, who otherwise blessedly avoids the digital gimcrackery that’s marred many recent Lifetime movies, vastly underestimates the difficulty of carrying a dead human being in the scene of two of the teens taking her out), driving her car to a bad part of town where it’s likely to get stolen, and pretending that the whole thing never happened. Only Jason has second thoughts about this and is ready to go to the police; he tells this to Cody and Gabe, and they lure him out to a bar, ostensibly to talk it over but actually to poison him with an 18-times-normal dose of a prescription sleeping pill that Cody, who used his computer skills to forge a fake prescription, obtained over the Internet.

They want people to get the impression that Jason killed himself over his recent breakup with his girlfriend and his rejection by the college his mom wanted him to go to — but mom (Barbara Niven) is suspicious and doesn’t believe her son would have committed suicide, especially since he behaved perfectly normally up until two days before his death — which she doesn’t know, but we do, is the night Cody killed Becca and got the other boys to cover for him. She’s even more suspicious when a letter arrives, addressed to Jason, containing two ballet tickets Jason bought to take her to the ballet for Mother’s Day — and eventually she becomes convinced that foul play was involved, though she still doesn’t know by whom or why. Though Conradt’s script doesn’t give John Bregar the kind of opportunities she gave Janet Montgomery in Accused at 17 to play the transition from spur-of-the-moment murderer to out-and-out psychopath, Bregar does fine with what he does get and Kyle Switzer is especially good as the boy whose own crises of conscience (and his fortuitous non-involvement in Jason’s murder) lead him to spill the beans not only to his mom but to Jason’s mother as well, thereby blowing the whistle on Cody’s scheme and ultimately leading to their murder convictions (with their father and stepmother also being convicted of aiding and abetting).

Dead at 17 is actually a better-than-average Lifetime movie — Jackson’s direction is properly atmospheric and obviously noir-influenced, the cast is solid and Conradt’s script full of intimations of the banality of evil — or perhaps the evil of banality; certainly Cody’s character rings true as a man who really does see himself as a sort of Nietzschean superman, above the morals of the rest of the world and entitled to do whatever he wants heedless of who might be hurt by it. The only real disappointment is that it’s Jason who’s the kid who ends up “dead at 17” — if only because he’s the cutest of the four, by a pretty wide margin — and there is a rather odd scene at the end of the film in which Jason’s mom and sister are reminiscing about his performance in a grade-school Christmas play and they hang an ornament on their tree of him as a pre-pubescent in his costume … framed in a Star of David made from popsicle sticks. Which were we supposed to believe — were they Christian or Jewish?