I settled in and screened last night’s “world premiere” movie on Lifetime, The Preacher’s Sin. The use of the definite rather than the indefinite article in the title is a bit of a surprise (though imdb.com reveals that it was shot under the working title A Husband’s Confession), and the contents of the movie are an even bigger surprise because it’s not the tale you would expect of a minister meeting a femme fatale and succumbing to the lure of her flesh to the point of committing not only adultery but other, nastier crimes — up to and including murdering either his wife, his girlfriend’s husband, or both. Instead the preacher is Evan Tanning (J. R. Bourne, who’s not exactly a drop-dead gorgeous sex god but looks considerably hunkier than the usual tall, sandy-haired, nondescript Lifetime leading man) and the sin he committed happened nearly two decades earlier. He’d already married his wife but was still in the Army, and he was deployed when he had a brief affair with a fellow servicemember, Monica Roswell (Diane White). Though they only actually had sex once, once is enough, and as usual in the movies it’s always enough; their union produced a son, Gabe (Demi Oliver, a genuinely sexy man who’d probably be on his way to mega-stardom if it weren’t so hard to cast for his “type,” men of Barack Obama’s skin color but clearly defined African-American features).
Monica is now dying of cancer — when we first see her Gabe is entering her apartment and kissing her on the forehead, and she’s bald (from chemo, we find out later) and director Michelle Mower picks an angle that makes her look so masculine at first I thought she and Gabe were going to turn out to be a Black Gay male couple and the preacher’s sin was he was going to have a homosexual affair with Gabe. (Well, since they’ve done the preacher-ruined-by-an-affair-with-a-straight-woman trope so often one would think Lifetime would be ready for a preacher-ruined-by-an-affair-with-a-Gay-man movie: after all, it’s happened enough in real life!) Years before, Monica wrote a letter to Evan explaining that she’d had a son by him but never sent it, but now she’s deliberately left it in a place in their home where Gabe would find it and learn about his true parentage. Gabe approaches the minister at a time when he’s got at least two other dramatic issues going on in his life, and though writers Michelle Mower and Kevin Dean eventually blend the three plot strands, for a long time this movie makes us feel like we’re being wrenched from one to the other with an intensity that’s giving us whiplash. One concerns his ne’er-do-well niece Jamie Barringer (Allie Gonino), whom we know right away is an alienated teen when we see she’s dyed the ends of her hair green. She borrows a friend’s car while she’s drunk and gets popped for DUI, and it turns out that she’s living with Evan and his wife Lauren (Tara Spencer-Nairn) because six months earlier her mom killed herself after a long struggle with bipolar disorder. (As for her dad, he left her mom either before or not long after she was born.) Evan and Lauren are attempting to impose an ultra-strict regimen on her, and she’s going to turn 18 in two months and is attempting to live her sort of life — including drinking, drugs, partying and boys — and wait out the time until she can walk out their door and not have to worry about a parental influence in her life anymore.
The third strand of the plot concerns media mogul Bill Traggert (Bill Lake), who among other media properties owns the radio station in Philadelphia on which Evan broadcasts a show about how to be a good and properly godly parent. Mower and Dean were obviously going for the cheap irony that Evan is being relied on for advice on parenting when he’s so evidently unable to get to first base with his crazy foster daughter Jamie — though Sarah Tanning (Tori Barban), his biological daughter by his wife Lauren, has turned out just fine. In fact, the most rebellious thing Sarah does all movie is lie for her sister when she sneaks out to a party after Evan and Lauren have grounded her following the DUI arrest so she can be with, and hopefully have sex with, her boyfriend Quinton Paul (Glenn Cashin, who’s actually quite well cast: he’s nice-looking enough one can understand Jamie’s attraction to him, but he’s not so hot that, in light of the usual Lifetime iconography that a genuinely hot guy is a villain, we’d think we were supposed to hate him). What Jamie doesn’t know is that the party is being hosted by Tinley Traggart (Stephanie La Rochelle, who plays the part with just the right combination of bitchiness and entitlement of a girl from the 1 percent who’s used to getting her way about everything) and she’s the daughter of Evan’s boss Bill Traggert and his alcoholic wife Shayla (Tria Donovan), who’s shown as “loose” enough that one of the roads not taken by writers Mower and Dean was to have Evan drift into an affair with her. Bill Traggert makes Evan a contract offer to take his radio show nationwide, but the contract terms are that Traggert gets 80 percent of everything Evan makes on his radio show, his lecture tours and his books, and when Evan tries to renegotiate it to a 50-50 split Traggert says that it’s an offer he can’t refuse: if Evan turns it down Traggert will cancel the radio show and Evan will lose his mega-church and never preach again.
So Evan signs, and in the meantime it turns out that Tinley is not only Quinton Paul’s ex, she’s determined to get him back by destroying Jamie’s life in the process. She also hosts her parties in houses she’s broken into, and when she sees Jamie and Quinton not only embracing at the party but heading for an unused bedroom to do the dirty deed, she calls the police to report a break-in and gets all the other guests to leave. Quinton and Jamie are thunderstruck when the cops show up and, with everyone else having fled, they’re arrested in flagrante delicto and there’s another charge for the cops to have against Jamie. Jamie is spared a year of incarceration in a juvenile facility but only if she agrees to go to a drug and alcohol treatment center; she does so, but in her absence Tinley decides to continue bullying the family by picking on innocent young Sarah, including stealing and hiding her street clothes while she’s in gym class. When she’s alone in bed with Quinton (they’re at his place even though his parents are home — talk about living dangerously!), she grabs his cell phone and uses it to text a message to Tinley, ostensibly from Quinton, saying he’s broken up with Jamie and wants to meet her in a deserted spot near a cliff and some water. The two girls duly meet and Mower and Dean pull another switcheroo on us: instead of having Jamie lose her temper and kill Tinley, it’s Tinley who loses her temper and kills Jamie. Evan is on a Traggert-sponsored lecture tour to promote his parenting book when he hears from Lauren that Jamie has disappeared — but not that she’s dead because the body hasn’t yet been found — and he decides to cut short the lecture tour (despite Traggert’s “I own you!” protestations that under their contract he doesn’t have the right to cut short his lecture tour) to be with his wife. In the middle of all this he also decides to tell her that he has a son from an adulterous affair years earlier — and she coldly tells him he’s no longer welcome in her house, with the odd result that he ends up bunking in Gabe’s apartment (by this time his mom has died of her cancer).
Meanwhile the police, led by detective Peters (Allison Graham, the sort of hard-ass woman detective who’s become a popular sort of character after the success of Mariska Hargitay in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit — though, come to think of it, it was Angie Dickinson on Police Woman in the 1970’s that really was the prototype!), at first write off Jamie’s death as suicide but eventually realize it was murder, and Peters spots similar paint scrapings on Tinley’s car and a post near the scene where Jamie’s body was found, puts two and two together and ID’s Tinley as the murderer. In the end, despite the attempts of Traggert to pull the plug on Evan’s radio show (literally and figuratively) reminiscent of Edward Arnold pulling the plug on Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe, Evan gets and stays on the air long enough to confess all to his radio audience: his illegitimate son, his problems with his foster daughter, and the fact that she was murdered by the daughter of his boss. There’s a tag scene showing Evan and Lauren not only back together but welcoming Gabe as a member of their family at what appears to be a Thanksgiving dinner. The End. The Preacher’s Sin isn’t exactly the lust-in-the-dust tale the title and Lifetime’s promos led me to expect, but it’s actually a bit above the usual Lifetime fare, if only because Mower and Dean as writers do enough tweaks in the formula the film actually seems at least somewhat original, and Mower as director gets excellent performances out of her cast (though Bill Lake as Traggert does rather chew the scenery — a problem Frank Capra had with Edward Arnold as well!) and stages the action powerfully. As I’ve noted in these pages before, if the movie industry really wants to correct its exclusion of women from directing jobs (the statistic I’ve seen is that in 2014 only 1.6 of all feature films released to theatres in the U.S. were directed by women!), they need look no further than Lifetime to find women more than qualified to direct!