Sunday, January 4, 2015

Stalked at 17 (Shadowland/Lifetime, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Stalked at 17, an odd entry in their ongoing series of “_____ at 17” (or sometimes even earlier, as in Mom at 16) broadcasts and a pretty typical Christine Conradt script even though this time she’s only credited with the screenplay and another woman writer, Kathleen Mattison, gets credit for the “original” story (quotes definitely intended and appropriate!). Well directed by frequent Conradt collaborator Doug Campbell and on the whole decently acted, the film tells the story of Angela Curson (Taylor Spreitler, a former regular on Days of Our Lives who’s done some TV, including two episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and a current run on a five-year-old series called Melissa and Joey, and just finished making a movie called Girl on the Edge which, ironically, was also a working title for Stalked at 17), a 16-year-old high-school senior who, being a put-upon Lifetime teen heroine, of course comes from a dysfunctional family. Her dad Mark (Brian Jeffrey Crouse) is a real-estate salesman on the downgrade who’s just had part of his territory reassigned to someone else (one suspects he’s on the first step of the slide downhill of the characters in Death of a Salesman and Glengarry Glen Ross) and whose income has taken a major financial hit just when he’s worrying about how he’s going to pay to send Angela to college. Her mom Karen (Amy Pietz) has been a stay-at-home housewife most of Angela’s life (and it seems hard to believe that these two stocky dark-haired people could produce skinny blonde Angela, but then the non-resemblance between people the script tells us are biological relatives is an old, old problem in movies) but is looking for waitressing work to bolster the family’s income.

Angela and her confidante, African-American fellow student Tanaya (Shavon Kirksey) — yes, this is yet another Lifetime movie in which a Black character is assigned the voice-of-reason role — go to a party at which Angela is cruised and successfully seduced by 21-year-old college student Chad Bruning (Chuck Hittinger). The inevitable (in movies, anyway) pregnancy at a single contact duly occurs — as I’ve noted here before, while it’s possible for a human female to get pregnant from her first unprotected sexual contact with a human male, human reproduction doesn’t routinely work that way in real life, though it does in the movies! — though this time around there’s no debate about what to “do” about the impending child. Chad is absolutely insistent that he’s going to marry Angela, figure out some way to support her and their newborn, and own up to his parental responsibilities. The problem with that is that Chad, despite his surface nice-guy demeanor, is a dysfunctional basket case with some monumental family problems of his own. He’s being raised by an adoptive mother, Lauren Bruning (Linda Purl), who’s a member of the City Council where this film takes place (the city is unnamed but it’s visibly L.A.) and also the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, and she’s used the clout of both those positions to spoil Chad rotten and shield him from having to take responsibility for his actions. Chad tells Angela (and us) that his mom is dead, but she really isn’t; she’s Kristy (Katrina Norman), who is about to be released on parole after serving 16 years for armed robbery. She was Lauren’s housemaid and, along with some friends (presumably including Chad’s biological dad), started robbing convenience stores to get money to fund her heroin addiction — only while in prison she’s cleaned up and held down an in-prison job, and is now applying for parole.

Chad insists on taking over Angela’s life, going ballistic in an (East) Indian restaurant after she’s served a piece of undercooked chicken and finally getting himself arrested — and Lauren has had enough and leaves him in jail instead of bailing him out. When Mark Curson threatens Chad with prosecution for statutory rape of his daughter, Chad responds by making a series of harassing phone calls at Mark’s workplace (Mark has Chad’s cell number blocked and Chad goes out to a pay phone — where does he find one? — to continue his harassment), and when the Curson parents get a restraining order against Chad he responds by breaking into their home, kidnapping Angela and stealing the baby — who by this time has been born and is a boy named Josh whom Angela, her parents and a guy named Trent (Sidney Franklin) who appears to be her new (and considerably more stable) boyfriend are working together to raise. The publicity on this movie said Chad “promises to kill his girlfriend when she threatens to end the relationship and take their baby,” but that’s not really apparent in Conradt’s script — though there’s the implicit threat that if Angela does anything to cross Chad he will totally lose it and end up killing her. On the run with Chad, Chad’s mom (whom I actually felt sorry for because her involvement in Chad’s crime will result in the revocation of her parole and her return to prison) and baby Josh, Angela tricks Chad into letting her stop at a convenience store to buy ointment for the baby. She hides out in the bathroom (aw, c’mon; what convenience store in the U.S. in 2012 still had a restroom they’d let customers use?) and scrawls out a message in lipstick on the stall door, and opportunely the next woman who needs the facility, who’s a middle-aged African-American (once again a Black character is the deus ex machina!), reads the note and alerts the proprietor, who confronts Chad and shoots him with a gun he keeps in his cash register to deal with potential robbers. (The National Rifle Association must have loved this movie; it’s one in which a bad guy with a gun is indeed brought down by a good guy with a gun.) Chad, laying bleeding on the convenience store floor, offers Angela his gun and tells her to shoot the proprietor, but she ignores him and waits for the police to arrive — and, unusually for a Christine Conradt villain, Chad is actually taken alive instead of dead.

Stalked at 17 is a pretty ordinary Lifetime movie, and the title is a bit deceptive in that Chad’s attempts to stay in touch with Angela don’t become what we ordinarily think of as stalking until about halfway through the movie (usually the term “stalking” in this context means a man following a woman and harassing her out of the belief that they have, or should have, a relationship but they really don’t; Chad’s behavior may be way out of line but he and Angela did have sex and conceive a child together, so there’s a real-world connection between them!), but like a lot of other Lifetime movies in this genre it’s redeemed, at least partially, by a terrific performance by the actor playing the bad guy. Chad Hittinger would seem to have everything required for major stardom (which is why it seems odd that according to his other credits are in tacky-sounding things like American Reunion, Boogeyman 3 and Sharknado); he’s tall, blond and drop-dead gorgeous, and confronted with a script that requires him to do a slow, inexorable descent from surface charm to edginess to out-and-out madness, he nails it at every step of the way. It would have been nice to see a soft-core porn scene between him and Taylor Spreitler, but since she was supposed to be playing 16 (even though she was actually 19 when the film was shot) that was probably ruled out by the censors. One reviewer called Spreitler the weak link in the cast, and it’s true she could have done more to delineate the shock the character would have felt at Chad’s first outbursts and the sheer terror she’d have been in as his kidnapping victim, but she’s acceptable and personable and even her relative woodenness (especially by comparison with the full-blooded performance of her co-star!) works in a way to project the character’s naïveté. The two older women in Chad’s life, Linda Purl as his adoptive mother and Katrina Norman as his real one, also turn in indelible performances that help raise this movie at least somewhat above the Lifetime norm.