Sunday, May 24, 2015

Kidnapped: The Hannah Anderson Story (Hybrid Entertainment/Lifetime, 2015)

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

I watched the “world premiere” movie on Lifetime, a true-life based thriller called Kidnapped: The Hannah Anderson Story which turned out to be quite good, a nail-biter which offered some new and unusual twists on Lifetime’s usual “pussy-in-peril” genre. Since 16-year-old Hannah Anderson (Jessica Amlee) was living in San Diego with her mother Tina (Trilby Glover) and eight-year-old brother Ethan (Gavin Collins), the story got a certain amount of “play” locally, though I’m not a big enough fan of either tabloid journalism (in print or on TV) or social media to have experienced the “play” it got there. The film was written by Peter Sullivan (who also directed), Hans Wasserburger and Jeffrey Schenck, and impressively it begins after Hannah is kidnapped — not by the sinister stranger generations of fictions like this one has taught us to fear, but by a neighbor and family friend, James DiMaggio (Scott Sullivan). The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI have worked together to track down DiMaggio and finally caught up with him in a remote forest in Idaho — DiMaggio having taken Hannah from her home in the rustic San Diego suburb of Lakeside first to Nevada and then Idaho — and an FBI sniper has taken DiMaggio down and allowed Hannah to be rescued. Hannah’s parents had divorced well before this occurred and she was living in Lakeside with her mom and brother, while dad Brett (Brian Anderson) had relocated to Tennessee with a new partner but, with Hannah’s release, has come slamming back into her life, putting so intense a level of control over her actions and movements she would have been forgiven for thinking she’d been kidnapped all over again. The main reason he’s become so hyper-controlling is that her story has become a tabloid media sensation, and he wants her neither to leave the house nor to go online for fear she’ll be entrapped in the media frenzy and will give an ill-thought-out interview that will get her on record as saying something embarrassing and/or easily twisted. Of course, in the absence from any comments from Hannah or her surviving family — for her mom and brother are both dead, killed by DiMaggio, who tied them up, put them in the garage, beat them to death with a golf club and then torched the house where they and Hannah had been living before holding a gun to her head and forcing her to leave with him — the gap is filled by wild speculations, including calling Hannah “the Lakeside Lolita” and saying she was having a consensual affair with DiMaggio and that’s why she agreed to run off with him after (in one especially sordid variant) helping him off her mom and brother.

The first half-hour of Kidnapped is a wickedly funny satire of the feeding frenzy that surrounds any celebrity, including one of the “instant” ones created by the media mob after someone just happens to have some association with something terrible that makes their life a “news” event. Media outlets who send reporters out to stage these attacks on people often defend them by saying their targets are celebrities who have “chosen” this lifestyle, or at least have learned to accept (or, in their minds, should have learned to accept), being hounded by the press 24/7 as one of the prices of money and fame — but that’s B.S.: they treat people who haven’t sought celebrity exactly the same way. Out of sheer frustration at the way she’s being reported when a school friend of Hannah’s finally shows her what they’re saying about her online, Hannah responds on one of the Hannah Anderson message boards with a few posts of her own — which, of course, only excites further media attention when the people running that board realize they’re talking to the real one. Eventually Hannah, out of sheer frustration over the way she’s being lied about, insists that her dad allow her to accept the invitation of The Today Show to do an interview, and the bulk of the film consists of the story of her abduction and captivity at DiMaggio’s hands as she tells it on Today — including a few “cheats,” behind-the-scenes footage of the police and FBI efforts to locate her (which succeed more through sheer luck than anything else — during their travails in the wilderness she and DiMaggio are stumbled upon by a party of four people, two men and two women, on horseback, and one of the men not only looks like he just rode out of a Western movie but is actually a retired sheriff who pieces together the whole thing and reports Hannah’s and her kidnapper’s location to the FBI) which she couldn’t have been a witness to first-hand. The one person who’s posted a review to so far, “wes-connors” (I presume that’s just Netspeak for “Wes Connors”), criticized the film for putting the end at the beginning and therefore vitiating any will-she-make-it-or-won’t-she? suspense — but I quite liked this the way it was and particularly liked the implied social critique — “This is the way the media guessed it … this is the way you out there, with your sick minds, imagined it … now this is the way it really was.”

Indeed, this was one of the best things I’ve seen on Lifetime in quite some time, well scripted, well directed and well acted — Jessica Amlee hit just the right note of dramatic perkiness in her pre-abduction scenes with her mom and brother and turned in a performance of enough depth and power to suggest she (unlike all too many Lifetime heroines before her) will actually learn something and grow as a person from her ordeal. And Scott Patterson matches her as DiMaggio; though one brief scene involving the law officers indicates that his dad committed a similar crime and killed himself when he was cornered (which just adds to the urgency with which the authorities are seeking DiMaggio, Jr.), for the most part he seems just right as a man being driven by appetites he can barely understand, let alone control — he just seems like your average next-door neighbor who went off the deep end when a little girl he’d known all her life suddenly blossomed into a sexually mature woman and he got such a bad case of the hots for her he was willing to do anything to get into her pants, no matter how evil, crazy or both. The fact that real-life kids are probably far more in danger of being kidnapped, molested or both from people they know (like Danielle Van Dam’s killer, David Westerfield) than from the largely mythical strangers in raincoats both kids and their parents are taught to fear is at the heart of this film (and the real-life incident that inspired it) and one of the best lessons it offers, though it’s mainly a surprisingly high-class piece of entertainment that makes Hannah’s struggles — both during her kidnapping and with the public media thereafter — all too real and allow us to identify with them.