Monday, July 2, 2012

Fugitive at 17 (Ontario/Quebec/Lifetime, 2012)

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

I put on the Lifetime TV-movie Fugitive at 17, which appeared from the title to be yet another in their sensationalistic series of melodramatic thrillers about young people (mostly women) put into dire situations while still in their teens — Dead at 17, Accused at 17, Mom at 16 — but turned out to be quite good. It was pretty obvious that director Jim Donovan and writers David DeCrane and Douglas Howell had studied Alfred Hitchcock, for Fugitive at 17, despite the preposterous title, was a classically Hitchcockian tale of an innocent accused of murder who realizes her (in Hitchcock’s films it was usually a he, but this being Lifetime it was a she) only chance of clearing herself of the crime is to flee the police and find the killer on her own. The innocent young woman is Holly Hamilton (Marie Avegeropoulos), a high-school senior, a whiz at computer hacking (she’s built her own super-laptop which she carries with her on her flight and which almost becomes a character in its own right) and a chunky but attractive young woman with huge red streaks in her otherwise black long hair which makes her look like a countercultural bad-ass even though she’s really a good girl and it’s her best friend Blake (Cindel Chartrand) — that’s right, a girl named Blake — who’s the bad girl. Six months before the action started, Holly and Blake were both put on probation for illegal possession of prescription drugs; Holly took the rap to protect her friend even though the drug tests on both women turned up negative on Holly and positive on Blake. At the start of the story, Blake invites Holly to a wild party at a club, where Holly hooks up with a nice kid named Dan Dalton (Daniel Rindress Kay) while Blake gets picked up by a no-good rotter who slips her a drug that interacts with her anti-depression medication, causing her to suffocate and die. The guy then overpowers Holly and force-feeds her some of the drugs, so when the police come they arrest Holly for manslaughter on the assumption that she and Blake were doing drugs together and Holly let her friend die.

Holly’s case is handled by a tough police detective named Cameron (Christina Cox) who initially doesn’t believe her story — and she works on the force (the story is nominally set in Philadelphia but the film was shot in Canada — indeed, the only production company credits I could actually read were the Quebec and Ontario film boards) with her ex-husband, who’s even more skeptical. One twist in the story is that Holly’s parents are dead; she’s been living with her grandmother, whom she (and everybody else) simply calls “G.M.,” but her grandmother is so sick Holly is essentially her caregiver (this part of the story seemed like a busman’s holiday to me!) and she’s used her hacking skills to cut through the insurance company bureaucracy and get G.M. the meds she needs … which Blake was stealing for her own recreational use, which is what got Holly into trouble and on probation in the first place. Holly is put in a police van and taken to juvenile hall, but she escapes when the van is hijacked by a gang interested in freeing one of the other prisoners (earlier there was a rather sour line about the risks of transporting adult and juvenile prisoners in the same van, but because of budget cuts that’s something they’re going to have to live with), and later she’s cornered in the hallway of her high school but she escapes again when the class bell rings and the halls are full of students that provide her cover from the police. Later she traces Dan and the two get together and look for the real killer, who had unusually long fingernails for a man. They decide, based on what Holly overheard him tell Blake, that he’s a teacher at Central University (he’d said he was in college but was not a student), and they figure he’s probably a music teacher because guitar players frequently grow their fingernails long on their strumming hands so they won’t need picks.

After identifying one false candidate, they zero in on Spencer Oliphant (Casper Van Dien, the one cast member in this I’d actually heard of before) and she decides that the only way she’s going to get him to confess is to seduce him, wiring herself in the process and having Dan record her with a satellite phone in his RV. Spencer drives her out to a deserted spot on the Old Mill Road and there’s a tense, somewhat overwrought final action scene in which she tries to defend herself with a taser, he brings out a high-powered rifle, he finds and smashes her recording device (but not to worry: she’s got another one) and she’s eventually traced by Cameron, who’s decided she believes her story and has traced “Oliphant” as Oliver Smith, a convicted sex offender from Nevada who created a new identity. Ultimately Holly grabs a gun and shoots Oliphant, and is about to give him the coup de grace when Cameron stops her — and there’s a tag scene in which G.M. is out of the nursing home in which the cops put her while Holly was on the run, the charges against Holly and Dan are dropped (though the health insurance companies Holly scammed insist that she tell them how she did it) and Holly loses a best friend but gains a boyfriend. Though the plot largely follows typical Lifetime formulae, Fugitive at 17 actually works quite well; the script makes sense and director Donovan keeps the action moving and keeps us identified with Holly throughout — and even the final scene works as an action highlight without going over into total unbelievability as so many Lifetime endings have.