Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dangerous Child (Freyda Rothstein Productions, Hearst Entertainment, Lifetime, 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Dangerous Child, produced by Freyda Rothstein (with Anne Carlucci as “supervising producer”) for Hearst Entertainment and originally aired in 2001; it was aired on the Lifetime channel but was several cuts above their usual fare. The protagonists are mother Sally Cambridge (Delta Burke, still zaftig but noticeably slimmed down from her peak years and with her Southern accent also toned down, to the benefit of her quite good performance) and her 16-year-old son Jack (Ryan Merriman), who after a lifetime of being a good little boy, getting straight A’s and making it onto the high-school basketball team is letting all that slide in the name of a teenage alienation which the script (by Karen Stillman and Alan Hines) carefully leaves ambiguous. The writers don’t trot out the usual cheap explanations for a teen running off the rails — drugs, sex, peer pressure (though the latter two are hinted at as part of, if not the whole, story) — and the story benefits from their reticence.

Sally is raising Jack and his nine-year-old brother Leo (Marc Donato) as a single parent; she makes her living as partner in an interior design firm and is just tentatively dipping her toes back into the dating waters by seeing one of her contractors, Frank (Barclay Hope) — who for some reason Jack takes an instant and visceral dislike to recalling the plot of The Magnificent Ambersons (which also turned on a willful, spoiled son breaking up his mother’s attempt at a new relationship). Jack’s father Brad (Vyto Ruginis — and the casting directors, Jon Comerford, Abra Edelman and Elisa Goodman, deserve credit for finding four actors who actually look enough alike to be believable as father, mother and two sons — though they fell down a bit in casting Frank, who’s the same time of stocky, sandy-haired guy as Brad and makes one wonder if that’s the only physical “type” of man Sally could ever be interested in; through much of the movie it was a struggle to tell Vyto Ruginis and Barclay Hope apart) has remarried and every time Sally has trouble with the kids, his immediate reaction is to threaten to fight her for custody. The grim irony that emerges as the film goes on is that Sally is living in physical terror of her son and his violent rages, while at the same time the child protective services system isn’t set up to protect parents from their children and so Sally is herself suspected of neglect and/or abuse.

Dangerous Child is a grim drama that propels us into the lives of these people — director Graeme Campbell honors the Stillman-Hines script with taut, suspenseful and ungimmicky staging — and though I never rebelled as extensively or lashed out quite the way Jack does, I could still identify with the characters in this movie and a lot of this felt like watching my own adolescence and remembering the strains on me from a mother who could go with glare-ice suddenness from being a buddy to being an authoritarian (and back). Lifetime had done the same plot trope — albeit with an out-of-control teenage girl instead of an out-of-control teenage boy — five years earlier in a film called Terror in the Family, but though the titular terror in that family was played by Hilary Swank (who would later go on to win two Academy Awards), Dangerous Child was considerably better — and judging from Merriman’s performance here it’s odd that he hasn’t made it to the A-list the way Swank has; his acting is full of life and vividly depicts the character’s own glare-ice shifts in mood, from ingratiating boy to vengeful, angst-ridden teenage rebel to humble, crying baby. At one point Jack lies to his dad that his mom’s boyfriend is abusing him — and dad immediately yanks both Jack and Leo out of mom’s home and takes them in, only Leo himself ends up in an angry outburst at his stepmom for making him lasagna, which he hates — and the final crisis is precipitated when Leo is seriously injured as a result of Jack’s latest attack on his mom, and the writers finally offer us an explanation for Jack’s rages: though Brad never physically attacked Sally during their marriage, he often viciously lost his temper and yelled at her, and both Cambridge boys thereby learned that screaming rage was an appropriate way to express themselves in a domestic disagreement.

Ultimately both Sally and Jack are handcuffed and taken into police custody, and Jack is forced into a six-month therapy program during which he’ll live in a foster home (which seems to me like it would just add to his problems!) while Sally is herself required to do therapy as a condition of not having to face child-abuse charges for having allowed her older son to injure her younger one. The ending is typically Lifetime-sappy but it’s not bad enough to vitiate the power of what has gone before — and the film succeeds not only in depicting Jack’s rages (while leaving their cause powerfully unstated) but giving us the terror Sally is being put through by this person whom she gave birth to, and who by law she is supposed to control when he’s not only physically stronger but far more willful and mean than she.

There’s a nice scene that sums up her frustration; she logs onto a computer in the library (this film was made in 2001, at a time when few homes even in the middle-class world this film’s characters inhabit had their own computers), does an internet search for “teen abuse of parents” and comes up with no online references at all — all the literature is about children as victims of parental abuse, not the other way around. (I just did a search with the same terms and did come up with a site: Dangerous Child is an example of Lifetime at its best: an intense social issue, vividly dramatized, well written, directed and acted, and offering us a sense of emotional involvement with these characters that makes us care about what happens to them.