Sunday, October 18, 2015

Are You My Daughter? (Odyssey Media, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2015)

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

Last night’s Lifetime film was one of their “world premieres,” something called Are You My Daughter?, which turned out not only to be very much to the Lifetime formula but a near-exact remake of A Wife’s Nightmare, a 2014 production Lifetime recently re-ran and which was a good deal better than Are You My Daughter? Are You My Daughter? begins with a scene on the Seattle wharf, where up-and-coming attorney Laura Paddington (Brooke Langton), wife of doctor Richard Paddington (Mike Dopud), has taken her three-year-old daughter Zoë (Bailey Skodje) to play. Only while she’s taking an all-important call from work — this is yet another one of those stories in which a woman professional is torn virtually in two between her obligations to her career and to her family — Laura momentarily loses sight of her daughter, and the girl disappears. Flash-forward 16 years to the present: Laura now has her own law office (which apparently handles private investigations on the side) and is representing a young man with a British — or at least British Commonwealth — accent who’s turning state’s evidence against a particularly vicious motorcycle gang. She’s also dating Jacob Nyholm (Peter Benson), whom she met in a support group for people whose close relatives mysteriously disappeared; she’s only known him for six months but he’s already insisting that they get married. As for Laura’s dad, he became a physician for a Doctors Without Borders-style group and he’s currently on assignment for them in Bangladesh; they’ve stayed in touch but the strain over Zoë’s disappearance predictably (at least by the standards of Lifetime screenwriters — this movie was written by Gemma Holdway and directed quite effectively, given what she gave him to work with, by Jason Bourque) broke up their marriage and she hasn’t been “serious” about anybody since until the advent of Jacob.

After about 20 minutes of exposition giving us all this, the plot kicks into high gear when Laura reports to a homeless shelter for something to do with one of her cases, and there meets Rebecca (Stephanie Bennett), a 19-year-old who according to her own account escaped an abusive “aunt” and her molesting boyfriend, who lived well outside the law and used her as cover for their crimes. Rebecca looks enough like Laura that she’s strongly convinced she is her long-lost Zoë, and when she looks at the back of her neck and sees Zoë’s trademark birthmark — a grey blotch that looks like two crossed hearts — she’s certain of it. The case involves both the local police and the FBI, and the FBI agent, Michelle Canning (Catherine Lough Haggquist), is convinced Rebecca is Zoë. “It’s very rare we have a happy ending in this work!” she exults as she congratulates Laura on regaining Zoë. But the local detective, Garwin (Jerry Wasserman), who’s been on the case since he was assigned to investigate it 16 years earlier when Zoë first disappeared, is convinced that hard-edged Rebecca couldn’t be the missing girl — to him, she just doesn’t seem like the sort of person Richard and Laura would sire. Even when a DNA test from a reputable private lab comes back with a result indicating that Rebecca is Laura’s daughter, Garwin is not convinced. After about two-thirds of the movie we’re starting to get more convinced, especially when we see Jacob giving Rebecca some displays of affection that don’t seem at all (step)fatherly, and Laura catches them — not actually kissing (or worse), but with Jacob’s hand stroking Rebecca’s back in what seems like a gesture between two people who are sexually involved with each other. About half an hour before the end Laura finally does what she probably should have way back in the backstory when Jacob first started coming on to her: she does an Internet search for his supposedly missing sister and finds no hits, indicating that either she never disappeared or maybe never even existed at all. It turns out that Jacob and Rebecca hatched this plot together — which isn’t that big a surprise because Peter Benson is a genuinely attractive actor and in a Lifetime movie virtually any time you see a hot man — especially a hot man who’s older than his teens (nice-looking teenage males on Lifetime are genuinely victims of sex-crazed older women psychopaths, or else the consoling end-of-movie boyfriends of the female teen victims of sex-crazed older men psychopaths) — he’s going to turn out to be a dastardly, black-hearted villain.

Their objective was not so much mutual lust as mutual greed; Laura had a fortune of $6.5 million saved in her bank, and they were after it as well as inheriting their estate. The idea was that Jacob would marry Laura, she’d die a mysterious “accidental” death, and Jacob would have both Laura’s money and Rebecca — though how he could live with her as a lover when he’d carefully established her as his stepdaughter, complete with having the birthmark (or a credible simulation thereof) tattooed on her, is a mystery locked inside Gemma Holdway’s head — unless he was planning either to pay Rebecca off with her share of Laura’s money or kill her, too. Jacob does kill Garwin by feeding him whiskey laced with poison — Garwin was suffering from heart disease and so Jacob picked a poison that would make it look like Garwin had simply had a heart attack — and at the end he and Rebecca kidnap Laura and take her to a cabin at Fox Lake, though they forget to take Laura’s cell phone away from her and Laura is able to call 911 and broadcast their intentions to the police. The final scene is a battle of wills that makes it look like Gemma Holdway is a faithful worshiper at the shrine of St. Christine Conradt — Jacob orders Rebecca to kill Laura once he’s tortured her into revealing the password to drain her bank account and transfer the $6.5 million to his (“Technology — isn’t it wonderful?” he muses as he completes his on-line larceny), but Laura convinces her to switch sides by telling her it’s more likely Jacob will kill both of them than that he’ll share the money with her. Rebecca gets the gun after Jacob drops it in a struggle with Laura, then Jacob overpowers Rebecca, but in the meantime Laura has grabbed the gun and used it to blow away Jacob, while the police have arrived just in time to watch Laura shoot Jacob and see she did so in self-defense. A rather odd tag scene hints that Laura and her husband Richard (ya remember her husband Richard?) will get back together, which seems odd.

The 2014 Lifetime movie A Wife’s Nightmare, written by Blake Corbet and Dan Trotta and directed by Vic Sarin, did essentially the same plot line but with considerably more style and stronger dramatic credibility: in that one the parents of the missing kid were still together and the wife was the breadwinner while the husband, who’d got together with her on the downside of brief sort-of fame as a rock star, is living off her as he records aimlessly in a home studio and dreams of a comeback album financed by his missus’ money. He meets his Lolita at a record store specializing in vinyl and the two of them are motivated simply by lust, not greed — which doesn’t make them more sympathetic but at least makes them less hateful — and at the end the wife symbolically castrates him by smashing his prized guitar, which she had bought for him while they were still just dating and when she could ill afford it. Lifetime has done quite a few of these missing-kid dramas with the whole schtick being is s/he or isn’t s/he, and quite the best of the recent ones is Lost Boy, written by Jennifer Maisel and formidably directed by Tara Miele (who said there aren’t enough talented women directors in Hollywood to direct more than just 1.6 percent of all feature films released?), in which the allegedly returned offspring is a teenage son instead of a teenage daughter and it’s kept powerfully ambiguous exactly what his motives are. Are You My Daughter? is a middle-of-the-pack Lifetime movie, not as good as some of them, not as silly as some of them, a decent two-hour time-filler but not the genuinely moving drama the basic story could have been (and Lost Boy was).