Monday, November 7, 2011

Perfect Child (Ambitious Entertainment, CanWest Global Television Network, Insight Film Studios, 2007)

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

I ran a 2007 Lifetime movie called Perfect Child — note the lack of a definite article in the title, though both the Lifetime Web site and included one — which besides the absence of the word “the” in the title was anomalous from Lifetime’s other “Perfect” movies in one more significant way: Christine Conradt didn’t write the script for it, though she might as well have. The people who actually did write it, James Taylor Phillips and Doug Barber, followed her formula to the proverbial “T”: a rising young career woman, Sarah Daniels (Rebecca Budig), sells her company’s P.R. skills to computer software entrepreneur Paul Cranmore (Lochlyn Munro, who differs from the common run of Lifetime leading men in being relatively short and stocky with sandy brown hair, not tall and lanky with sandy brown hair, but is rather cute in a teddy bear-ish way) and, despite her disinclination to date clients, ultimately ends up in his bed. Paul is an excellent businessman but his personal life is a mess: he went through an ugly divorce from his previous wife (who’s still alive, since Paul talks about being embroiled in a custody battle with her, but is never actually seen in the film) and the woman he dated before he met and ultimately married Sarah, Rebecca, died under mysterious circumstances — she was killed in her bathtub when a hair dryer fell into the tub and electrocuted her. The police ruled it an accident but Rebecca’s sister Diane (Jillian Fargey) is convinced foul play was involved.

Sarah also has her own accidental-death skeleton in her closet: when she was a teenager her younger stepsister Amanda (Cassandra Sawtell — her character may have died years before the main story but we see enough of her in flashbacks, mostly of her floating face down in water, they needed an actress to play her) drowned and Sarah was too late to save her, and then got blamed by her parents (and herself!) for Amanda’s death. Sarah finds out that Paul has a female business partner, Monica (Jody Thompson), who’s long wanted to be much more than just his business partner and actually got her wish briefly when they had an affair just after his marriage broke up — to her it was a till-death commitment but to him it was just a rebound relationship he quickly broke off — and when odd things start happening around her and Paul, Sarah suspects Monica is trying to break them up to get Paul back for herself.

Only — as the title gives away — the real culprit is Paul’s spoiled-rotten 13-year-old daughter Lily (Nicole Muñoz), who’s formed a psychopathic hatred of any non-related woman who comes between her and her dad; her motivation can basically be described as an Electra complex on steroids and Muñoz’ performance is very closely modeled on Patty McCormick’s in the 1956 film The Bad Seed: all cooing innocence on the surface masking a grim determination to get what she wants no matter how many people she has to hurt or kill on the way, from leaking a secret bug in the company’s software that tanks its stock price and framing Sarah for it by sending the leak out on Sarah’s laptop (one thing she’s inherited from — and no doubt been taught by — her father is his skill with computers) to knocking off Rebecca (first with a poisoned meal and then, when that didn’t work, with the old hair dryer in the bathtub trick) and attempting to kill Sarah the same way, making her a spaghetti sauce according to an old family recipe (the Borgia family, that is) and then confronting her in the lake off Paul’s house in an attempt to hook all her phobias (she’s learned about them) and lead to her drowning in yet another “accident.”

Director Terry Ingram, whose work up until this point has been pretty Lifetime-straightforward and has ignored the potential for noir atmospherics that the story would seem to have, stages the finale like a 1940’s Universal horror film, having it literally take place on a dark and stormy night (which serves to strand Paul at his business meeting in the city — it’s supposed to be Seattle but it’s really being “played” by Vancouver, as you’d expect in a Lifetime movie — and thereby isolate Sarah with Lily and without anyone else to help her) and shooting it in blue-tinted almost black-and-white, staging the action effectively even though the melodramatic climax seems incredibly overwrought as the ending of a domestic psychodrama. Still, Perfect Child is appealing entertainment, better than the Lifetime average even though Budig’s performance as the woman in peril tends to be overshadowed by the rest of the cast.