Monday, July 27, 2015

Lost Boy (LeGrand Productions, Lifetime, 2015)

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

Charles and I watched a Lifetime movie together, and it proved to be an unexpectedly good one: Lost Boy, a 2015 production directed by Tara Miele (whose superb atmospherics and the performances she gets from her actors score yet another point for women directors) from a script by Jennifer Maisel. The story premise has a family resemblance to another Lifetime movie from years ago, When Andrew Came Home (2000) in that both center around a grieving mother who suddenly comes face-to-face with her long-lost son who disappeared years before — only where the boy in Andrew definitely is her long-lost son and he’s still well within pre-pubescence (Andrew disappeared at 5 and returned at 10), the situation in Lost Boy is played more powerfully for ambiguity and the kid, Mitchell Harris (Matthew Fahey), disappeared at 6 and (presumably) reappeared at 17, about to be emancipated and in the full flush of sexual maturity. During the years her son has been gone, mom Laura Harris (Virginia Madsen from the cast of Sideways, top-billed) has become a major advocate for the parents of missing children, and she’s been able to help other parents handle the reunification of their families even while her own son still remains among the missing. Alas, her home life hasn’t been so happy; Mitchell’s fraternal twin sister Summer (Sosie Bacon — not Susie, Sosie!) is being raised by her dad as a single parent — the Harrises have divorced not only over the strain of having a missing kid but over Laura inevitably and unconsciously neglecting the children she still has, Summer and her younger brother Jonathan (Jacob Buster), in favor of her memories of Mitchell.

Dad Greg Harris (Mark Valley) wants mom to sell the house — which she, inevitably, has kept exactly the way it was when Mitchell disappeared, including preserving his room as a sort of shrine to him — and both of them to divorce and move on with their lives, especially since he has a new girlfriend, Amanda (Carly Pope), and has impregnated her and naturally wants the two of them to be able to marry and raise their upcoming daughter in a normal family environment. The first intimation that the supposed “Mitchell Harris” isn’t who he’s claiming to be comes when he insists on Greg bringing Jonathan along for the DNA test he’s agreed to go through to establish that he is Mitchell. He grabs the blood sample needle and extracts some of Jonathan’s blood while the two boys are alone together, then has to quickly change his plans and stick a swab in Jonathan’s mouth when he finds they’re going to run the test on saliva instead of blood. Whoever he is, Mitchell also turns out to have a dark side, taking Jonathan out into the woods and burning him, first with a candle and then with what appears to be a lit cigarette. Mitchell is drawn as psychotic, though unlike most Lifetime writers, who if anything overexplain their plots, Jennifer Maisel keeps his real motives and mental state as powerfully ambiguous as his identity. Matthew Fahey’s performance, vividly realized under Miele’s direction, avoids both the usual stereotypes of how to play a psycho on screen — the snarling one exemplified by Lawrence Tierney in late-1940’s and early-1950’s movies like Born to Kill and The Hoodlum and the low-keyed boy-next-door variety pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock’s direction of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Instead Fahey conveys mental distress through twitchy movements and breathy, barely in-control vocal intonations surprisingly reminiscent of James Dean (indicating that Fahey might not be bad casting for a Dean biopic even though the two don’t look all that much alike aside from both being young, slender white men). He looks a lot more like the real-life crazy people I’ve known than the usual depiction of mental illness we get in the movies!

It all comes to a head at the lake where the real Mitchell Harris disappeared in the first place, where he’s kidnapped Jonathan (he’s taken one of the Harris family cars, since it’s already been established that he knows how to drive) and Laura has to go in the water, even though she never learned to swim (though the thrashing about she does in the lake is at least vaguely effective in getting her where she needs to be), to rescue her real son from the psycho impostor. Afterwards, instead of a big scene in which Mitchell either definitively dies or gets his legal comeuppance, Laura agrees that the police can stop dragging the lake for his corpse — and there’s a final tag scene in which Mitchell (or whoever he is), dressed as he was at the beginning — scruffy jeans and a hoodie — is hitchhiking along the side of a road, evidently planning to insinuate himself into another family that has lost a son and work his scheme again. What makes Lost Boy unusual for a Lifetime movie is the overall ambiguity; we’re never told who “Mitchell” really is, what his motive for impersonating the real Mitchell — in fact, it’s never definitively established that he isn’t the real Mitchell, though the presumption we’re supposed to come to after his elaborate monkeying around with the DNA testing process is he isn’t and wants Jonathan’s blood and saliva in the tests so it will come back saying they’re blood relatives is that he’s faking it — and whereas another Lifetime writer, including Christine Conradt, would probably have inserted an elaborate subplot establishing who “Mitchell” really is and written in a subsidiary character masterminding the whole scheme for some untoward purpose, Maisel leaves it all unstated, hinting in that final scene that he’s pulled this before and will most likely pull it again for motives that are only to be guessed at. Was “Mitchell” really kidnapped and abused sexually? Is he looking for a family with whom he can connect? Is he psychologically compelled to repeat the abuse scenarios to which he was subjected? Or all of the above? We don’t know, and Miele and Maisel aren’t about to tell us — which itself (along with the sheer power and realism of Fahey’s performance) sets Lost Boy apart from most of the Lifetime fare and indicates that they’re both worthy of bigger and better assignments.