Monday, November 2, 2015

A Student’s Obsession (Marvista Entertainment/Lifetime, 2015)

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

A Student’s Obsession — last night’s Lifetime “world premiere” movie — won’t be found under that title on because they’re still listing it under its working title, Dangerous Lessons, a much better name (one that better reflects the ironies in the story, “lessons” referring not only to the teaching that gets done in a formal high-school environment but the life lessons the characters learn — or don’t — about their own and each other’s emotions) but one that wouldn’t fit into Lifetime’s usual strategy of naming things “A_____’s _____” (as opposed to their other title formulae, “The Perfect ____” and “The _____ S/he Met Online”). There are Lifetime movies like A Life Interrupted and The Bride He Met Online that actually manage, within the strictures of what the network expects from its producers and thinks will satisfy its viewers, to be entertaining and even genuinely moving. There are Lifetime movies that don’t reach those heights but at least nail the basic elements of the network’s formulae well enough to be pleasant time-fillers. And then there are Lifetime movies like this one that get so overwrought and melodramatic they achieve entertainment value as sheer camp. Writers Blaine Chiappetta and Damián Romay, and directors Romay and Jacobo Rispa (though Romay is the only director credited on threw so many melodramatic strands into the mix that one genuinely wonders where this movie is going if only because they keep us in such suspense as to which clichéd situation (which clichéd theatrical-film situation or which clichéd Lifetime-movie situation) they’re going to resort to to get themselves out of the hole they’ve just written themselves into. The plot is basic enough: Stephanie Archer (Louise Lombard, talented and hot-looking enough with her rail-thin body and skin-tight jeans one can readily imagine her being a crush object for her male students) is a zoology teacher at a public high school in Florida. (We know it’s Florida because during the first act she’s shown organizing a field trip to the Everglades, and the second act takes place on that field trip.) Her husband Michael (William Haze) has some sort of unspecified career that takes him away from home a lot — I mean, a lot — and which he’s so wrapped up in that even when, on the advice of her school friend (an assistant administrator who’s not listed on the page but is played by an African-American actress and is the typical avuncular Black voice of reason in this show), she dons a sexy outfit and tries to seduce her husband away from his laptop, all he can do is mutter about some vague “presentation” he has to get ready immediately and can’t tolerate any distractions like a sexually frustrated wife trying to throw herself at him. They’ve been together long enough to have a teenage daughter, Nicole (Ella Wahlestedt), who’s being ignored by her mom as much as her mom is being ignored by her dad, and whose response is typical alienated-teen: she claps a pair of headphones on herself (bright pink to match the bright pink top of her bikini) and blasts her music loud enough to obscure anything her mom tries to say to her.

During the first scene showing Stephanie actually teaching — in a room full of cages including various reptiles, one of which is a poisonous snake, and which also displays the so-called “Devil’s Trumpet,” a.k.a. Datura, a plant whose blossoms contain poison that can be deadly either when handled or used to make a tea (it’s how the title character of Leo Delibes’ opera Lakmé commits suicide at the end — Lakmé was premiered before Madama Butterfly but has basically the same plot, only instead of an American sailor it’s a British soldier, instead of Japan it’s India, and instead of stabbing herself the heroine kills herself with a poisonous plant) — in walks James Dearden (Alex Esola), and despite his anachronistic 1950’s haircut he is indeed a hunk to die for (or drool over), especially when directors Romay and Rispa give us a lot of shots of him shirtless, showing off great nipples and one of the nicest set of man-tits I’ve seen in quite a while. (No chest hair, alas; if he had some he’d be even sexier, at least according to my taste; I thought Cameron Deane Stewart, who played the victim of a sexually obsessed teacher in Lifetime’s Dirty Teacher, was even hotter, but Esola is certainly a lot of fun to look at even though the directors give us all too few shots of his basket.) Anyway, James is a transfer student from another school and he not only walks into Stephanie’s zoology class (where she has pointedly introduced herself as “Mrs. Archer” instead of “Ms. Archer,” which Charles thought was anachronistic — “What decade is this, anyway?” he asked — but which may have been her way of dealing with both students and fellow teachers who had crushes on her by announcing right up front that she’s married) but he knows all the answers to the questions she’s been asking the other students, to no avail. James has to rush to get waivers from his other teachers to get on that field trip, but he does, and one night he manages to get his sexually frustrated teacher alone and kiss her — she returns the kiss but then almost immediately feels guilty about it (as well as being all too aware of the devastating effect an affair with a student, and a 17-year-old student at that, could have on her career). Alas, the kiss has been witnessed by the other teacher on the field trip, Richard Berg (Richard Haylor), a nerd with a decidedly unrequited crush on Stephanie himself (though Haylor played the scene in which this was revealed so nellie that for a moment I thought the writers were going to have him be Gay and have his crush on hot, hunky young James!), who out of jealousy or whatever threatens to expose Stephanie’s relationship with James to the rather out-of-it school principal.

Among other things, A Student’s Obsession is one of those horrible stories in which any dramatic interest or credibility depends on the dramatis personae keeping the events secret; had Stephanie done the sensible thing and reported James to her African-American administrator friend, the principal or the police, the problems could have been solved and the movie ended in less than half its actual running time. Instead writers Chiappetta and Romay throw absurd melodramatic complication on top of absurd melodramatic complication: James steals a venomous snake out of Stephanie’s classroom and hides it in the Black administrator’s desk drawer just as the administrator is making a call to James’s previous school to obtain his transcripts, which will supposedly reveal the deep, dark secret that’s turned him into a sexual predator against his teacher. A bouquet of the deadly Datura blossoms turns up at the front door of the Archers’ home, and Stephanie has to intercept it from her husband before he touches the blossoms and risks injury or even death. The bouquet turns out to be an unwelcome gift not from James but from Richard — who, remember, is another teacher and is therefore supposed to be one of the grownups in this story — so later, when Stephanie is taken sick at work and nearly killed by Datura blossoms with which someone has spiked her drinking water, the cops (represented by a dykey detective who from the looks of things would be a better match for Stephanie than either of her crush objects — or her husband, for that matter) suspect Richard and arrest him, then release him for lack of evidence. While all this has been going on we’ve also been shown where James lives — in a rusting old trailer with his mom Carol (Carole Wood), who looks like she has an incestuous crush on him herself and when she isn’t drooling over her son is inviting in a succession of men whose idea of afterplay is to beat the shit out of her. These turn out to have included James’s dad, whom we’re told late in the movie was shot by James himself when James was 13 and he caught him about to beat up his mom … again. We’re also told that the reason Stephanie’s husband Michael has been neglecting her for his work is he’s desperate to complete his current “deal” in hopes of making up the $300,000 he already lost on a previous “deal,” which has put them so far behind financially they’re in danger of losing their house. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Stephanie understandably asks (but then no one in this movie seems to be interested in telling any other character the truth about anything), to which he replies, “Because I didn’t want to worry you.”

It all comes to a head (no pun intended) when James goes totally psycho and stabs Richard in the chest with what looks like a shard of broken glass and loads Richard’s body in the trunk of his car just so he can move it around and scare the shit out of other people. James also finds time to court Nicole, Stephanie’s daughter, using the false name “Seth,” and gets her to fall hopelessly in love with him. She invites him over to meet her family — and of course Stephanie goes ballistic when she realizes James has decided to get to her by seducing and threatening to deflower her daughter. Stephanie throws James out of her house and tells Nicole she’s not to see him again, advice which of course has exactly the opposite effect. James then returns home to the trailer and the adjoining building, a long-abandoned horse stable, and his mom tries to stop him from leaving by holding a shotgun on him — only James easily takes the shotgun away from her and shoots her with it. Then he gets Nicole to run off with him, only his real intent is to kidnap her, tie her up and threaten to kill her unless Stephanie comes to his place (and does what, one wonders?) Meanwhile, that avuncular African-American woman school administrator has finally dredged up James’s transcripts (ya remember the transcripts?) and found that at his previous school he did the same thing — he got a crush on a teacher, managed to get her into a compromising-looking position (even though he never did the down-’n’-dirty with her) and got her fired and her life ruined by the scandal. The finale comes when James calls Stephanie, says he has her daughter and will kill her unless she comes to him alone, without either her husband or the police, and there’s an angry confrontation in which James says that he’s done everything he’s done for love, and he wonders why his generously proffered love never seems to be returned by anyone — only Stephanie’s noncommittal responses annoy him and it looks like he’s going to blow both Stephanie and Nicole away with the gun, only Stephanie attacks him, gets him to drop the gun, and James’s mom, wounded but fortunately not killed, becomes a mater ex machina and blows away her son to save Stephanie’s life.

As silly as A Student’s Obsession is, it’s utterly haunting in one respect — despite, or maybe because of, their sloppiness as writers, Blaine Chiappetta and Damián Romay managed to create in James a genuinely conflicted character, crazy in ways that somewhat conform to our movie-conditioned expectations but whose mental issues crash into each other and bounce around like so many pool balls; almost against their will they managed to invent a genuinely interesting character (and besides being gorgeous, Alex Esola has the skills as an actor to portray someone who doesn’t always know himself where the demons bouncing around in his head are going to take him next). Also working in this movie’s favor is the intriguing physical resemblance between Alex Esola and William Haze (whom we also get to see shirtless in one shot), enough that we can readily imagine Stephanie being attracted to James because he reminds her of her husband when he was younger, (presumably) sexier and not bowed down by the demands of his job (whatever it is). But I suspect such subtleties were unconsciously inserted by the filmmakers instead of genuine complications introduced to make their movie more dramatically interesting and morally ambiguous (the way Christine Conradt as both writer and director made the central characters of The Bride He Met Online multidimensional, which irritated some people who commented on that movie on the message boards but engaged me: “It’s called dramatic ambiguity, and it’s a good thing,” I noted). They wanted a show that would be good sleazy fun, with a good-good heroine being set upon by a bad-bad villain (and by a lot of other complications in her life!), and they so larded on the plot devices that they ended up with a camp classic rivaling A Deadly Adoption (which got advertised during the breaks, saying Lifetime’s upcoming showing of that questionable production with Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig would be the last one — “and then what?” I asked. “Are they going to destroy the negative and all prints, and delete the digital files as well?”) for sheer joyous dementedness.