Monday, August 31, 2015

Stolen from the Suburbs (Us Against Them/Lifetime, 2015)

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

I watched another Lifetime “world premiere,” with the rather bland title Stolen from the Suburbs — leaving me wondering just what might have been stolen from the suburbs that a Lifetime filmmaker (in this case Alex Wright, who both wrote and directed the show) would be interested in depicting. It turned out it wasn’t a what, but a who: Emma (Sydney Sweeney), restive 16-year-old daughter of Kate (who oddly isn’t listed on the page for the film even though she’s playing the leading role!), a single mom who moved from Wisconsin to Los Angeles after her husband died and is so neurotically overprotective she freaks out when Emma tells her she wants to do horrible, perverted things like hang out at shopping malls and date boys. Before the main characters are introduced we get a scene showing the modus operandi of the ring of human traffickers who will ultimately “steal” Emma and her Black friend Courtney (Tetona Jackson) from the suburbs, kidnap them and hold them in what amounts to a boot camp for underage prostitutes of both sexes. Recruiter Johnny (the genuinely hot Mark Famiglietti — as usual with a hot guy in a Lifetime movie, the moment you meet him you know he must be up to no good) approaches a couple of homeless teens, one male and one female, who are hanging out under a lifeguard tower at a beach. He lures them out with promises of food, shelter and a place to clean up at the “Los Angeles Teen Shelter,” and claims there will be no police there and no curfew.

The two are suspicious but eventually agree to get into Johnny’s white van — whereupon two heavy-set thug types, Ivan (Rick McCallum) and Mike (Karl Dunster), grab them and tie them up. Johnny (who’s referred to as “Tom” on the film’s page — evidently there were some changes before the film was finished) is then told by Malena (also unidentified on but played by a quite good blonde actress who delivers a chilling portrait of matter-of-fact evil, especially later in the film when she explains to Kate that as far as she’s concerned the kidnapped children are just merchandise and all she cares about is the money) that homeless kids are already such damaged goods that they are of little use to her, and he needs to find her nice suburban teens. Johnny protests that such kids will be more difficult to recruit, but he accepts the marching orders and turns up at the mall to which Emma and Courtney have sneaked. Johnny has already got Courtney to accept him as her boyfriend, and to lure Emma he’s brought along a skinnier, less openly attractive but still cute guy named Adam — but when Emma tells mom she’s been with a boy named Adam, Kate grounds her and says she’s not allowed to see boys unless mom meets and vets them first. Emma escapes from her room and heads for the mall, where Adam — who we’re not sure at first whether he’s a member of the ring or an innocent victim himself — gives her a drugged drink and turns her over to Ivan and Mike in the same sleazy white van we saw in the opening sequence. From then on the film cuts back and forth between the sex slaves’ boot camp Malena and the two thugs are running, and the demoralizing and brutal treatment they put their charges through (in the days of U.S. slavery the process of breaking down the captives’ will and forcing them to accept their fate was called “seasoning”), and Kate’s increasingly desperate attempts to find her daughter and to get the police detectives assigned to the case, Richmond (Neill Barry) and Cordoba (Sabrina Perez), to give a damn. Stolen from the Suburbs suffers from didacticism — a more subtle filmmaker than Alex Wright might have been able to create a story in which mom’s very overprotectiveness lures Emma to the dark side and shown a longer seduction process before she realizes what her “boyfriend” really wanted from her (in real life the pimps who do this sort of recruiting can spend weeks getting their victims to the point where they’re so convinced the pimps “love” them that they’re willing to turn tricks to show their own affection), but instead he seems to be saying, “Girls, when your mother tells you not to date guys she hasn’t met, just follow her orders, or you’ll end up a sex slave!”

It also suffers from some pretty gaping plot holes and the usual loose ends of sloppy thriller writers — including a hint that the sex traffickers have a “mole” inside the police department, presumably someone they’ve bribed, which Wright forgets almost as soon as he’s introduced it — and the outrageous plot contrivance that Kate decides to infiltrate the prostitution ring by posing as a Lesbian customer interested in buying Courtney’s services. (Emma hasn’t been listed on the traffickers’ Web postings — which, we’re told, go on above-ground sites like Craigslist disguised as ads from aspiring actors — because she’s still a virgin and therefore the mysterious “Syndicate” that runs the trafficking ring is saving her for a “special” customer.) There’s even a scene early on in which Kate, who works for a building contractor, tears down a missing-child poster from a tree near the latest project her boss is developing — he’s told her to because advertising that children go missing from the neighborhood would be bad business for the developer — and the volunteer who runs the agency that put up the poster upbraids her and asks, “What if it was your daughter?” Eventually the volunteer and Kate team up to run down the traffickers; they find Adam and Kate nearly kills him by withholding the rescue inhaler he needs, but once they’ve got him to talk a well-aimed shot by Johnny (who, in addition to his other sordid skills, also appears to be a talented sniper) takes him out for good, so Kate and the volunteer child-saver won’t have a live witness they can bring to the police. For all its messiness, Stolen from the Suburbs is actually quite a good thriller; Wright manages to sustain the suspense until the end (an all-out shootout at the traffickers’ compound, which seemed difficult to believe — an ending in which they leave the girls behind but escape themselves would have been both more chilling and more believable, but then movie traffickers, like movie drug lords, engage in more and nastier violence than their real-life counterparts and do an awful lot of shooting that wouldn’t be in their best interests in the real world) and we’re genuinely in doubt as to how it’s going to turn out and whether mom will save her daughter in time. Stolen from the Suburbs is gripping filmmaking and well worth watching, and if Alex Wright can give himself a cleaner and more coherent script next time (or get someone else to write one for him), his future films should also be worthwhile entertainment.