The film was Missing at 17, a surprisingly good effort from Lifetime’s number one auteur, writer Christine Conradt, and her frequent collaborator, director Doug Campbell. It begins with a singularly chilling scene in which Shannon White (Tricia O’Kelly) is running through the mean streets of Los Angeles searching for her missing 17-year-old daughter Candace (Ayla Kell, top-billed). She runs into a homeless person who keeps repeating the name “Candace” after hearing Shannon call it, and when she asks him if he’s seen her, he says, “She rode off on a white horse.” Then she encounters a white … no, not a horse, but a van, dumping a blue body bag onto a vacant lot. She charges over to the bag as soon as they drive off, and opens it to find a young woman inside. The opening is a bit of a cheat because later we see the same sequence and find it was only a nightmare Shannon had, but in the meantime the scene-setting continues, we get a title reading, “Two days earlier” (fortunately it’s just days and not weeks, months or even years as in some of Lifetime’s other movies, including ones scripted by Conradt), and a startling confrontation between mother and daughter that shows us just why Candace ran away. It seems that a week before Candace’s boyfriend had dumped her — and Candace was so alienated from her mom already that she told her dad (who in the meantime had divorced mom and moved from L.A. to San Diego — it’s not that far but Candace treats it about the same as if he’d gone to New York!) but not her mom — but what really precipitated her running away was a lecture by her biology teacher. The teacher was explaining Mendel’s laws of heredity and noting that, because the gene for blue eyes is recessive, two blue-eyed parents can’t conceive a brown-eyed child. “That’s impossible,” says Candace, offering herself — the brown-eyed daughter of a blue-eyed man and woman — as a counter-example.
The teacher disagrees, of course, and one of the boys in class heckles Candace and says she must have been adopted. Then she goes home and, after an initial attempt to evade the conversation, mom confesses to Candace that she was adopted — it turns out later that she and her husband were so anxious to become parents they didn’t want to play the usual game of sexual roulette and wait both for however long it took them to conceive plus nine months after that, though eventually they had their own natural child, Candace’s brother Andrew (Jacob Hopkins) — and Candace takes that as explanation for all the tensions that have existed between her and mom for as long as she can remember, and takes off. She makes it as far as the mean streets, where she’s picked up by a hot young man named Toby (Ben Gavin), who’s a hunk to die for so we know he’s up to no good. Indeed, given the current attention to human trafficking our immediate suspicion is that he’s going to take her to his place, seduce her and ultimately pimp her out — though he’s got one point of difference from the average movie pimp: he’s white, and though there are undoubtedly real-life white guys seducing underage runaway girls and turning them out as hookers, the people who do this sort of thing in movies always seem to be Black or Latino. It turns out that he and his cousin/roommate Keenan (Jonathan Camp) are running their place as a continual party house — indeed, when Toby first brings Candace to his place there are so many young horny guys around my first thought was they were going to gang-rape Candace and I found myself muttering under my breath, “Please, Christine, don’t do that to her!” She didn’t, and instead of being a pimp Toby turns out to be involved in some other, less sex-oriented forms of villainy, from loan-sharking to stealing motorcycles (we see him carefully filing off the serial number of one of them and reselling it) and ultimately planning some sort of robbery that, since the target building is in a grungy neighborhood and is covered in graffiti, is obviously aimed at stealing either drugs or drug money.
While all this is going on, Shannon is searching for Candace and Candace borrows $1,000 from Toby and uses it to hire private detective Mike Foster (Gary Hudson) — who, though no Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell or Robert Mitchum, is at least personable and far less grungy than the overweight slobs private eyes are usually depicted as in Conradt’s films. Naturally, she wants Foster to trace her birth mother, and though he’s unable to locate an address for her he does find her brother, Vance (Micah Alberti, who for once in a Lifetime movie is a hot young man actually playing a sympathetic character!), and it turns out mother is a hopeless alcoholic who got thrown out of her own place and moved in with him — a traumatic experience for him since he kept getting called away from work (and losing money thereby) to pick her up from one gutter (metaphorical or, sometimes, literal) or another. Before she and we find her brother, however, Candace actually is located by her mom — and her dad, who has come down from San Diego to help the search and be there if and when she returns — only, in a marked departure from Conradt’s usual formulae, instead of being sympathetic they start chewing her out and get so nasty and punitive towards her she runs away again and heads for the waiting arms of Toby. Though a bit too pat in its plot resolution (albeit Conradt throws us another welcome emotional curveball when Candace’s real mom says that now that she’s in touch with her daughter she’s going to go into rehab and stop drinking — and instead of being supportive, Vance chews her out, understandably jealous that she wasn’t willing to get sober for him but she is for a daughter she gave up at birth and has just met, just like a real person and unlike a TV character), Missing at 17 is actually quite good drama, with enough emotional truth that the thriller bits involving Toby and Keenan seem intrusive, though there’s a moving and genuinely tragic ending in which the drug dealer Toby and Keenan tried to steal from traces them, shoots both of them, and Candace, genuinely in love with Toby, cradles his body and tries to revive him as he dies.
It’s a measure of the unusual emotional complexity (at least for a Christine Conradt script) of this production that we genuinely feel for Candace losing her first real love (we previously got to meet her former boyfriend and it’s clear there was nothing serious on either side of that relationship) even though if he had survived he’d only have been arrested for murder (since Keenan had killed the other drug dealer they were ripping off and under California law anyone involved in a crime that includes murder is equally guilty of murder — some states make distinctions between the actual shooter and the other crooks who are literally or figuratively along for the ride, but ours doesn’t) and the long-term impact on her psyche over having fallen for such a rotter would be even worse. As it is, for some reason only Christine Conradt could understand, the really bad drug guy doesn’t kill Candace when he has the chance — given her usual predilections, one would expect him to be just about to fire at her when the cops would show up and take him out — so she lives to ID him in a lineup. This time her parents take a more sympathetic and sensible line towards her, and the final scene takes place at Candace’s birthday party, where her birth mother shows up with a crude cake she’s baked her — an indication that the awkward work of healing this family’s wounds is about to start in earnest. Missing at 17 has its share of awkwardnesses and fall-backs to Conradt’s typical plot devices, but overall it’s a surprisingly honest story despite its lapses into melodrama in the whole two-crooks plot line — and a meeting between Candace and her brother Vance that gets so emotional and seems so sexually charged I half expected him to say to her, “I’d like to take you to see my favorite opera — Die Walküre.”