Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Choking Game (Orly Adelson Productions/Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime “Saturday Night SoCial World Premiere” movie was actually quite good even if it did trod down paths a million previous Lifetime productions have gone before: The Choking Game, about what is apparently the latest trend among teenagers interested in finding new, creative, experimental ways to risk long-term health damage (including the very real possibility of doing themselves in well ahead of schedule) for the sake of a transitory “high.” Having already done, drinking, drugs (various kinds), self-mutilation and even Internet porn, writer Jen Klein (adapting a novel called Choke by Diana Lopez but, interestingly, changing the girls imperiling themselves with this sort of play from eighth-graders to high-school seniors) and director Lane Shefter Bishop seized on one that was a new one on me: people deliberately choking either themselves or each other until they lose consciousness. Our heroine is Taryn (Freya Tingley), a gooder-than-good high-school girl who’s about to turn 18 and is tired of getting good grades and being shoved towards enrollment in the University of Michigan by her impossibly overprotective mom Heidi (Peri Gilpin) and Elena (played by a tall, leggy young African-American actress who regrettably isn’t listed on the page for this film), the surrogate for her mom who’s a classmate of hers and is counting on sharing her dorm room at U of M when they both go there after they graduate.

Only Taryn is chafing under the intense pressure from mom to stay the “good girl” and keep focused on getting into college (the local state university because Mom doesn’t want to loosen the apron strings long enough to let her go out of town) and staying successful. She wants alternative possibilities, and they duly arrive in the person of Nina (Alex Steele), who’s just transferred from another school and the scuttlebutt is that she was thrown out of her previous high school for doing something really, really nasty. Taryn meets Nina when she finds Nina passed out in the girls’ restroom, and she immediately assumes Nina has been doing drugs — as would we if the title of the movie hadn’t been so obvious about what she’s really up to. There’s also a bitchy young woman at the school named Courtney (Ferron Guerrerio), a blonde social-director type who’s elected herself the arbiter of which students are “in” and which are “out,” complete with a malicious put-down of the people who aren’t on her version of the “A”-list as “G.P.” or “GenPop” — short for “general population,” and the use of a phrase that initially denoted life inside a prison as a metaphor is an indication of just how far the prison-industrial complex has embedded its tentacles into the rest of American life. Elena’s got her wild side (she dyes blue streaks in her hair — a rare case of an African-American dyeing her hair and actually looking good at it — and for Taryn’s 18th birthday she offers to score both of them fake ID’s so they can go to a local bar and see a particularly prestigious alt-rock band) but has strict limits on the amount of edginess she’ll allow herself and basically functions as Micaëla to Nina’s Carmen. By more or less dumping Elena for Nina, Taryn scores her way into Courtney’s social circle even as her grades plummet, she blows her SAT’s, she’s threatened with expulsion from the track team (the one extracurricular activity she actually wanted, though Mom signed her up for yearbook without asking her first) and Mom’s spying on her reaches NSA-level proportions as Mom frantically searches through her bedroom looking for … something.

What makes this movie more interesting than usual is that Taryn has been accustomed to the relative independence of being a so-called “latch-key kid,” raised by a single mother who was at work a lot of the time, and though she missed the experience of love and support from her mom she also enjoyed the freedom from close-in supervision — until mom met and married her stepfather Will (Ray Galletti), who was well-off enough that he suggested Heidi quit her job and devote herself to parenting Taryn full-time. As if in a demented attempt to make up for lost time, Heidi is running her daughter’s life like a concentration-camp commandant — so much so that even Will, who isn’t any biological kin to Taryn at all, thinks she’s overdoing it and let Taryn have her taste of teenage rebellion before she realizes that the wild side isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and goes back onto the straight and narrow. Also part of the dramatis personae is Ryder (Mitch Ainley, tall, gangly and a bit too homely to be credible as the irresistible dreamboat he’s playing; he’s easy enough on the eyes but there are probably a million unknown kids in Hollywood who could have outshone him in both looks and acting skills), a former childhood friend of Taryn who wants to pursue a relationship with her now that he and his previous girlfriend broke up over the summer. In one nicely cliché-reversing scene (albeit one we’ve seen before in one of Lifetime’s movies about the nice girl who goes off the rails and becomes an exotic dancer) Taryn practically rapes Ryder at one of Courtney’s parties — and he recoils in horror from this bizarre person she’s become, so different from the cute, clever, funny version of Taryn he fell in love with back when they were just kids. Bishop and Klein manage to make this whole familiar plot unusually intense and emotional — though maybe I was responding to this movie because, while my own mom was nowhere nearly as crazily judgmental as the one in the film, nonetheless the feeling of being kept under a microscope was familiar enough to me from my own childhood even though I didn’t become a teen rebel, I suspect because I simply wasn’t interested in it: my mom was already counter-cultural enough there was hardly any room to rebel anyway.

Whatever the reason, I found myself totally gripped by The Choking Game and utterly believing in the characters and the way they were portrayed — until Klein decided to put yet another unusual spin on the expected clichéd ending in which Nina comes to no good and Taryn gets shocked back onto the straight and narrow. Worried that she hasn’t heard from Nina in a while, Taryn decides to go to Nina’s home — her mom grounded Taryn but her stepdad slips her the car keys so she can use them in this emergency — only to arrive too late; we see the paramedics pushing Nina out on a stretcher and for the next act or so we assume she’s died. After a confrontation between Taryn’s and Nibna there’s a bizarre scene in which a terminally out-of-it Nina sits on the edge of her bed, immaculately dressed but unable to talk except for some gurgling noises she emits at the end. Of course we assume that Nina is already dead and this is either a fantasy or a dream of Taryn’s — but then it’s explained to us that Nina is still alive and this is supposed to represent story reality. Though one of the reasons Nina thought that choking yourself was safe was the well-known fact that you cannot strangle yourself with your bare hands — as soon as you lose consciousness and pass out, you let go of yourself and start breathing again — in her case she hit her head against something as she passed out and the blow caused permanent brain damage. The film ends with Taryn’s life relatively back to normal and she and Ryder (ya remember Ryder?) sharing a burger and fries at the local hangout — since it’s previously been established that he’s going to college to do pre-med studies one wonders why an aspiring doctor is willing to do what a doctor’s wife on a previous Lifetime movie called “31 grams of fat” — and a set of statistics including that 1,000 kids kill themselves with “the choking game” every year, 74 percent of those do it while adults are in the house with them, and 86 percent of parents have never heard of it. This soupçon of social commentary and awareness-building is expected from a Lifetime movie — and certainly the rather outré nature of this relatively new teenage amusement means that someone should be building awareness of it — but the power of The Choking Game is in its relative emotional honesty and the way we’re drawn into the characters and situations instead of being pulled above them and made to observe the movie’s people dispassionately like a scientist studying lab rats, as has been the case with all too many recent feature films with far more prestigious casts than this one!