Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Defending Our Kids: The Julie Posey Story (Ira Pincus/Von Zerneck/Sertner, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Defending Our Kids: The Julie Posey Story, a Lifetime original production from 2003 starring Annie Potts (who was just right for the role: not especially attractive, and with a whiny voice that got grating at times, but also thoroughly convincing as a mother whose protectiveness towards her own daughter got turned into a larger cause) in a fact-based story about Colorado housewife Julie Posey. The film opens on the 13th birthday of Julie’s daughter Krystin (Ksenia Solo), for which mom has made her a shirt she immediately rejects as terminally lame and dad has bought her her own computer. Krystin immediately starts logging onto chat rooms and meets someone whose screen name is “magicman” and whose real name is Sam (C. David Johnson); she befriends him online and eventually they set up a face-to-face meeting — only mom gets alerted to what’s going on just in time when one of Krystin’s schoolmates comes over to look up a homework assignment she and Krystin were working on, and by accident the schoolmate and Julie accidentally boot up Krystin’s chat-room account. In a thrillingly directed suspense sequence (the director is actress Joanna Kerns, making her debut behind the camera and turning in a marvelously effective job with a real flair for thriller-type action) Julie gets into her black SUV (a vehicle which looks awfully sinister itself trolling down the streets of Denver) and manages to find her daughter and her daughter’s would-be molester just as they hook up in the park. She reports the incident to the police but is told by detective Mike Harris (a rather gangly Michael O’Keefe — actually one nice thing about this movie is that the people in it are ordinary-looking instead of Hollywood-attractive and therefore more believable in their roles than glamour stars of both sexes would have been) that there’s no proof that Sam was actually approaching Krystin for sex and therefore there’s nothing that they can do. Julie points to all the correspondence between her daughter and Sam on the Internet and is told that’s protected speech under the First Amendment — to which Julie replies, “Well, God bless America, but keep him away from my daughter.”

Before this Julie had been talking to her husband Jerry (Carl Marotte) about going back to work now that Krystin is a teenager and therefore no longer needs as much supervision (now that she’s meeting up with pedophiles on the Internet and making dates with them? Yeah, right), but now she decides to offer her services to the police as a free-lance cyber-investigator, trolling the chat rooms herself and posing as a 14-year-old girl to make dates with scumbags and thereby set up stings at which the police can arrest them. She reluctantly persuades Mike Harris to work with her on doing this, and Mike offers the services of Cassandra (the attractive Janet Kidder), who’s both his police partner and his girlfriend (the page on this film lists her last name as Harris, reflecting their marriage during the course of the story) and who’s petite enough she can pose as the physical incarnation of Julie’s screen persona. The first sicko they bust is a charismatic piano teacher named Steven (John Ralston, by far the hottest guy in the movie and someone who projects the air of being so irresistibly attractive he could probably get anybody he wanted, woman, man or child, to have sex with him!) whose perverted fantasy is to deflower a 14-year-old girl while her mother watches. Then they attract the attention of an even slimier slimeball referred to in the dramatis personae only as “Texas Top Dawg” after his vanity license plate, who sends a music box that plays “The Yellow Rose of Texas” to the Posey’s home (leaving them scared shitless since Julie never gave her the address) and makes arrangements to meet his supposed child date at a diner — only Julie herself crashes the sting, against Mike’s solemn warnings to stay out of the scene of any actual arrest, and thinks Texas Top Dawg is reaching for a gun when all he was grabbing from his waist was a cell phone. (She’d earlier been spooked by the pro-Second Amendment bumper sticker she’d seen on his car, which is a black SUV not all that different-looking from hers.)

Then she’s called to testify in court and the defense digs up Julie’s own dark secret — that she was a molestation victim herself between ages 11 and 13, and though this was before the Internet existed and her molester was a neighbor, he used the same dopey lines as the modern-day pedophiles do. TTD’s defense attorney (a tall, wizened and singularly homely older woman of whom it might be said, as Ralph Berton said of his brother’s music teachers, that one wouldn’t think of her as female except in the sense that the Statue of Liberty is female) uses that to suggest that Julie’s real motivation is to work out the trauma from her own molestation by targeting innocent people on the Internet and framing them for child sex abuse. TTD is convicted anyway, but the incident leads Mike Harris to break off his working relationship with Julie — though she continues free-lance and finally the cops agree to work with her again since she’s still out there finding people they don’t have the money or person power to reach and helping them make cases against molesters. Eventually she runs across her daughter’s would-be molester again — now he’s calling himself “samiam” and he’s a big-shot architect designing a new performance-arts center in Boulder — only just when she’s got him hooked on a chatroom the FBI comes busting in and seizes her computer over her work on a different case. She runs into “samiam” on line again, though, and this sets up a climax in which she has to pose as her own teenage avatar (Cassandra broke her leg falling down stairs on the first night of what was supposed to be her and Mike’s honeymoon) and meet Sam at night at a crowded amusement park arcade, and she has to do that without the transmitter that was supposed to broadcast her location and allow her to talk to the police — so she’s at real risk of being ambushed in the remote part of the park to which Sam led her before the cops finally track her down and arrest her.

Defending Our Kids has some problems, including its uncritical endorsement of Posey’s activities (you wouldn’t know from this movie that she is also a Fundamentalist Christian — in 2002 she moved to Wichita, Kansas, and her current source of income is hiring herself out as a Web designer for churches — or that that was raised against her by the defense in at least one of the cases she worked) and the fact that after Dateline NBC and its work with a rival anti-predator group on the Net called “Perverted-Justice” (which Posey, ironically, originally denounced because they weren’t working with law enforcement the way she was) these sorts of predator stings are nothing novel — and neither are the lame excuses the perps come up with when they’re busted. There’s also a certain degree of manipulation: writer Eric Tuchman’s script is well put together and keeps us interested but there’s also a sense that he’s manipulated and re-ordered the real events to create a classic three-act structure, and the finale of her going after her daughter’s would-be molester and losing her radio contact with the cops smacks of a screenwriter’s desperation to impose a climax on a story that doesn’t naturally have one (as the closing credits remind us, there are 450,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S. and 75 percent of them use the Internet — today it’s probably closer to 99 percent and the 1 percent who don’t probably don’t only because they’ve been paroled and one of their conditions was not to go online — so whatever you think of Julie Posey’s activities, and to me they smack of private-duty vigilantism even though she was well trained and conscientious enough she knew to stay on the “right” side of the law and not go into anything that would legally constitute entrapment, the fact is there’s literally no end to them: there will always be desperately lonely teenagers, predators eager to take advantage of them and an Internet that allows them to hook up).

But overall Defending Our Kids is an excellent movie, a compelling story well told by writer Tuchman and director Kerns and vividly acted by Potts, Kidder and especially Marotte (I found myself identifying mostly with his character, a good-natured schlub who works in the warehouse at an electronics retailer and isn’t drop-dead gorgeous but cute enough in a teddy-bear way it’s easy enough to see why his wife is still attracted to him, and who makes his frustration as her crusade takes over more and more of her life and keeps her away from him both figuratively and literally — the scenes of him alone in their bed as she’s in the living room tapping away on her keyboard in chat-room conversation with some perv are heartbreaking). I left out O’Keefe because I found him a bit homely — or maybe I was subconsciously flashing back to all those Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episodes about pedophiles and wishing it could have been Christopher Meloni in the role — but he’s right enough for the part and overall Defending Our Kids is a great TV-movie even though I can despise the sexual exploitation of children and still have a more nuanced view of Julie Posey’s activities than the one presented in this film.