Friday, July 1, 2011

Just Ask My Children (Firebrand/Hearst Entertainment/Lifetime, 2001)

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

This morning I ran a commercial DVD of an absolutely gripping Lifetime TV-movie from 2001, Just Ask My Children, based on a true story of a witch hunt for alleged pedophiles in Bakersfield, California in 1982 in which Brenda Kniffen (Virginia Madsen, a better actress than usually gets cast in these parts) and her husband Scott (Jeffrey Nordling) were arrested, convicted and sentenced to 240 years for sexually abusing their sons Brandon (Cody Dorkin at age 9, Scott Bailey at ages 15 to 21) and Brian (Ryan Wilson at age 6, Dan Byrd at ages 9 to 12 and Gregory Smith at ages 15 to 18). Their troubles began with the crazy stepmother of a friend of theirs, Debbie McCuan (Karina Logue), who in order to get custody of Debbie’s two daughters accused Debbie and her husband Alvin (Spencer Garrett) of molesting them — and when the Kniffens agreed to appear as character witnesses for the McCuans, the crazy stepmother decided to ensnare them in the net. The Kniffens are awakened in the wee hours of the morning by a police task force that grabs them out of bed (though Scott isn’t there — he’s already at his job, and one of the most powerful ironies in the movie is when Brenda hears the media report that the police did the arrest after a months-long “thorough investigation,” and she snorts that they were so “thorough” they didn’t even know where her husband worked until she told them), and after that they never see their children again for over a decade, except when the kids testify against them in court following a long series of interrogation sessions.

The whole thing is masterminded by the Kern County assistant district attorney Andrew Gindes (John Billingsley), and anyone who followed the McMartin case (which “breaks” just as the Kniffens’ case goes to a non-sequestered jury, which had to have influenced them) or any of the other ludicrous frame-ups based on “ritual Satanic abuse” and the idea that “children don’t lie” and don’t have the information to fake accusations of sexual abuse (they didn’t need to fake them; the police and so-called “therapists” who interrogated them, often for hours on end, and browbeat them into cooperating and fingering — pardon the pun — their parents for nonexistent crimes supplied them all the necessary details and asked them only to sign on) will groan with familiarity as the full treatment gets applied to the Kniffen boys and they finally agree and say what the cops and “therapists” want to hear in the naïve hope that once they say what the authority figures want them to say, they’ll get to go home to mommy and daddy. The script by Deborah Serra and the direction by Arvin Brown (except for his overdoing the point-of-view/point-of-hearing stuff when the Kniffens react in court to the guilty verdicts against them) are straightforward and keep us focused where we should be — on the Kniffens themselves and the way they are tested and ultimately transformed by their ordeal.

The film gets a bit treacly at first as it shows us the nice, warm suburban family lifestyle the Kniffens are about to get ripped out from under them — though the opening scene shows Scott playing ball with his older son and giving him a warm, affectionate and completely proper hug, but one that takes on sinister undertones given what we already know in advance the movie is going to be about; it underscores just how the most innocent actions can be reinterpreted at the hands of a maniacally off-the-rails system determined to prove a point. It’s certainly a film that reinforces Abigail Padgett’s point (and as a former child protective services worker who turned mystery novelist and wrote a series of books based on her experiences, she ought to have known!) that you should try your damnedest to avoid getting caught up in systems like CPS because once they take jurisdiction over you, they have their own priorities and move according to their collective perception of their own “interests” that may not have anything at all to do with what’s best for the welfare of the people whose lives are taken over by these bureaucrats.

Just Ask My Children is a movie that works on every level; not only is the cast first-rate from top to bottom, but casting directors Abra Edelman and Elisa Goodman deserve kudos for finding five actors, at least three of them children, who not only look enough like Virginia Madsen and Jeffrey Nordling to be credible as their offspring, but look enough like each other to be believable a) as brothers and b) as the same people at different ages. Just Ask My Children is a vivid human drama, beautifully told and wrenching in its emotional impact — though the emotion it’s likely to draw from you is anger rather than sadness: not tears for the plight of the Kniffens but righteous indignation not only at how shabbily they were treated by “the System” but also at how little recourse they had. When their defense attorney at their trial compares the “investigation” against them to the witch hunts in Salem, which were also based on impressionable adolescents being interrogated by adults who had a clear idea of what they wanted them to say and who would reward them the more people they fingered, it was a comparison that occurred to me at the time, especially after I read Marion Starkey’s history of Salem, The Devil in Massachusetts, and noted how similar the interrogations seemed.

Perhaps the most chilling part of Just Ask My Children — and there were quite a few, including the lengths to which the D.A.’s office and the judge in the case (who’d earlier lost a bid for the D.A.’s office because he was accused of being “soft” on child molesters) went to make sure nobody from the defense had access to the children in the case for over two years, until the case came to trial and the boys had been thoroughly brainwashed not only to testify that their parents had abused them sexually (including hosting orgies with them, videotaping and photographing the results — the fact that invariably the accused parents in these cases were alleged to have taken pictures of the acts and no pictures were ever found itself should have awakened suspicion as to the “merits” of these cases long before it did) but had rented motel rooms and sold sex with their kids to strangers, but had actually come to believe it must have happened (at least the older boy did; the younger boy steadfastly maintained his belief in his parents’ innocence and his realization that he’d only said what he said because the cops had made him) — is a scene towards the end in which Brenda is being interviewed by a prison psychiatrist to evaluate her fitness to see her kids. The psychiatrist says he can’t authorize a visit until she stops her “denial” of her own guilt, and Brenda fires back with the irony that she’ll be allowed to see her kids if she admits to molesting them but not if she doesn’t, and then — just when we fear she’s on the verge of cracking and yielding to the same pressures the same system put on her kids — she says, “There is no force or pressure or bribe or price that would ever make me say I did that to my children. I would rather die here alone than ever have them think I did such a thing.” Just Ask My Children is an unusually good film for Lifetime — mainly because they had an absolutely chilling and riveting story and they had the good sense (mostly) to stay out of its way and just tell it — and it’s also an indication of just how good this much-maligned channel can be when it sets its collective mind to it!