Sunday, October 25, 2015

16&Missing (Feifer Worldwide/Lifetime, 2015)

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

Last night I watched the latest Lifetime “world premiere” movie, 16&Missing (the page for it lists it more typographically conventionally as 16 and Missing, but the actual title credit is as above, with an ampersand and no spaces, as if it were a Twitter “handle” — and Lifetime’s current penchant for putting hashtags in front of the titles of their movies when they flash them on the screen in mid-film to let people who’ve been channel-surfing know what they’re now watching makes the title look even more “Twitteresque”: #16andMissing). It was one of Michael Feifer’s auteur productions: he produced, wrote and directed, and his company is called “Feifer Worldwide,” and was a not-good, not-bad typical Lifetime story about an overprotective mom, Julia (Ashley Scott), who’s worried about her 16-year-old daughter Abbey (Lizze Broadway) — that’s how her first name is spelled both on and when we see her referred to by name in texts flashed upon the screen. At the start of the movie Julia and Abbey’s stepfather Daniel (David Starzyk) have just given her her own car for her 16th birthday, but of course it comes with a warning that she’s to use it carefully and safely. Of course, Abbey has no intention of following orders: for the past two years she’s been carrying on an online correspondence with Gavin Brown (Mark Hapka), who’s told her he’s a police officer in Prescott, Arizona, and Abbey is determined to use her new car to drive out there and see her online beloved for the first time. Of course, being a male lead in a Lifetime movie — and a highly attractive man, at that (Feifer gives us some good crotch shots of Hapka’s black jeans-clad midsection: he isn’t throwing that big a basket but it’s nice enough to be impressive aesthetically) — we can guess that “Gavin” is up to no good, but it won’t be until two-thirds of the way through the movie that we’ll find out what he’s really doing and why he wants Abbey. One conceit of the film’s plot is that as an active FBI agent Julia can tap into the expertises of just about anyone else who is now or has ever been part of the FBI. “Now” includes an African-American information technology specialist she regularly works with, who shows her how to hack Abbey’s e-mail and smartphone so she can find out where her daughter is and what he and “Gavin” have been saying to each other. He also runs down Gavin’s record; he learns that “Gavin” is really an ex-convict but at first he thinks Gavin is merely “trolling,” sending out hundreds of texts and e-mail messages to social media sites aimed at women and hoping one “bites” and corresponds with him, which will give him someone he can date (and fuck) once he gets out.

It turns out “Gavin” has a far more sinister agenda than that, one hinted at by a barely motivated (though we find out its importance later) flashback in which Abbey as a child watches her dad, a fellow FBI agent, get kidnapped and killed by his former partner, who’s “gone rogue” and hooked up with a major drug kingpin who has a huge warehouse filled with neatly stacked stashes of illegal narcotics. Abbey’s dad, of course, remains honest, but for his pains he and his daughter are kidnapped by the rogue FBI agent, Walter Sanford, who is later killed in the line of duty by Julia. Abbey saves her own life only by following dad’s order to her to run into the surrounding forest and hide. Two years later Julia married Daniel, something for which Abbey never forgave her, especially since Daniel brought his own two bratty kids into the relationship (it’s not clear whether either or both of them are Daniel’s and Julia’s children or Daniel’s by a previous marriage, though the snotty young boy who heard Abbey leave but didn’t say anything about it because “I’m glad she’s gone” certainly looks too old to have been the offspring of Daniel and Julia). When Abbey drives out into the desert to meet Gavin, he’s so young and personable — Abbey says he looks older than he did in his profile picture online but he’s told her he’s 23, and frankly that’s how old he looked to me (though Mark Hapka’s biography on gives his birthdate as May 29, 1982, which would make him 33) — I was wondering if the schtick was that he was trolling for potential victims for a human-trafficking ring and the risk Abbey was in was that she’d be sold into sexual slavery as a prostitute. Certainly such criminal enterprises, both in other movies and in real life, rely largely on “hooking” their female (and male) victims with young, personable, genuinely attractive partners who then turn them over to their pimps for the brutal process they call “breaking” (in the old days of actual chattel slavery in the U.S. the newly captured Blacks from Africa — the ones who survived the Middle Passage — were subjected to a similar will-breaking routine the people who did it called “seasoning”). But that wasn’t where Michael Feifer was taking us; nor, as I also briefly thought, was he going the route Robert Bloch, Joseph Stefano and Alfred Hitchcock did in Psycho, creating a genuinely attractive but seemingly milquetoast character who turns out to have some bit of psychological glare-ice in his makeup that turns him into a crazy killer. Instead nice, young, personable “Gavin” turns out to be Walter Sanford, Jr., son of the rogue FBI agent who killed Abbey’s father in the flashback sequence and then was killed by Abbey’s mother — and Sanford fils’ motivation is bitterness over having lost his dad and grown up in foster homes, so he’s determined to make both Julia and Abbey suffer the way he and his dad did, though he’s undecided which of his victims he wants to kill first.

Thanks to another FBI agent, a retired one Julia used to work with before he quit the Bureau and settled in Prescott, Julia is armed both with a pistol and a high-powered rifle, and after she tries to explain to Sanford how his dad’s death really went down (provoking another flashback, an ill-timed one when we want the show to smash towards the end without the excitement, such as it is, letting up), he tries to kill Abbey and Julia blows him away before he can do that and before the local cops, which she and her retired-FBI friend have called, can arrive at the scene. The End — except for the everything’s-back-to-normal tag scene in which Julia and Abbey joke about how long she’s going to be grounded for this (the rest of her life, Julia says) and how long it’s going to be before Julia allows Abbey to date men (never, Julia says, which of course led me to joke about Abbey becoming a Lesbian). I’ve no doubt seen several of the Lifetime movies Michael Feifer has produced, directed and written, but the one that sticks in my mind is His Secret Family, about a woman who discovers that her husband is a bigamist and she was actually wife number two. His Secret Family struck me as considerably better than 16&Missing, mainly because it had a much more interesting villain and also its considerably quirkier (and kinkier) plot line seemed to turn Feifer on more than the standard “watch your children” moral tale of 16&Missing, which was decently acted (though Feifer’s casting director slipped up badly by casting Abbey’s best friend Janelle with a young actress, Stella Hudgins, who looked so much like Lizze Broadway that for a while I was confused as to which of these lovely young teenage girls would be put in mortal peril) and acceptably directed but offered nothing outside the common run of Lifetime movies, either for good or ill.