Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Damaged (Lighthouse Media, Sandover Productions, Lifetime, produced 2014, released 2015)

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

I screened a Lifetime movie from my backlog: Damaged, originally shown January 3, 2015 (though my recording was from a rerun last July) and basically promising your basic teacher-sexually-tempted-by-hot-student plot (the tag line is, “A student's crush turns into obsession,” while the synopsis on reads, “A mysterious teen girl moves into a quiet neighborhood across the street from a high school teacher. The teacher and teen girl develop a mutual admiration for each other, which leads to a plot of revenge, murder, betrayal, sexual assault and blackmail”) but ended up delivering a lot more than that. In fact, the “more” was the basic problem with it! It all begins with a simple suburban scene between high-school English teacher Sam Luck (Chris Klein, who isn’t exactly a male sex god but is considerably better looking than most Lifetime male leads) and his wife Kate (Tasya Teles). Their marriage seems reasonably happy except that Sam works during the day and Kate, an up-and-coming attorney with a major firm, has to work nights a lot. Then a mysterious student named Taran Hathaway (Merritt Patterson, who was in one of my favorite recent movies — Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief — but, alas, only in a minor role listed only as “Pretty Girl #2”) moves in next door. Taran seems to be from a family with money — her mom is dead and her dad is working out of town but he lets her use his BMW, a car which she loans to Sam when his car is stolen — though where it came from, and for that matter where she came from, remain mysteries until the film is about three-quarters over. Directed by Rick Bota (whom I’d previously encountered in another Lifetime movie, Love You to Death, also aired last July) from a story by Kevin Leeson and a script by Riley Weston, Damaged takes some unexpected turns towards an unusual destination for a Lifetime movie.

At first when Sam meets Taran and she introduces herself as a “student,” she’s old-enough looking he assumes she means a student at the local university — until she turns up in his high-school English class. With her dad and his wife both out so much, and with them being neighbors, Sam and Taran start seeing a lot of each other and vibrating with mutual lust despite the obvious pitfalls (like he’s her teacher, which could get him fired; and she’s underage, which could get him arrested — though the real Merritt Patterson looks considerably older than a high-school student; I don’t know how old she is and her page doesn’t give a birth date, but I’d guess early 20’s). While all this is going on mysterious things start happening to Sam: the tablet computers he has got the school to buy for his students so they don’t have to lug around a heavy, expensive textbook are hacked to display a porn site in class; his car is mysteriously stolen; his best friend Dan, with whom he’s bought a diner the two of them are planning to fix up and reopen aimed at the college crowd, suspects Sam of stealing from him since there’s an unexplained $10,000 withdrawal from their business account; and Taran buys Sam a Rolex watch (a real one, though he naturally assumes it’s just a cheap knockoff) as well as letting her use her dad’s BMW. Sam gets called into the principal’s office twice, the first time to be informed that a student has filed a complaint against him for sexual harassment (and Leeson and Weston do a good job depicting the kangaroo-court aspects of this procedure: Sam asks if he can confront the witness against him and mount a defense, and is told, “Only if she presses criminal charges”) and later to be fired because, as the principal tells him, “the school board has determined that the charges have merit.” There’s a nice scene (extensively quoted on the film’s page) in which Sam volunteers to fix Taran’s kitchen sink; he washes out on this job (both figuratively and literally — his attempts create a geyser of water that soaks Taran) but there’s a lot of sexually charged dialogue something along the lines of the famous “a lot depends on who’s riding in the saddle” exchange between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep.

Eventually Sam gets fired, his friendship with Dan ends when Dan learns that a company called “Sam Luck Properties” has bought the diner out from under him (why they’re extensively fixing it up when they haven’t legally bought it yet is something of a mystery), and apparently figuring if he has the name he might as well have the game, Dan finally yields to Taran’s advances after his wife disappears. We know, though he doesn’t, that his wife has actually been killed; Kate went to Taran’s home when Taran was out and leafed through papers that documented she’d been in a mental institution for the criminally insane in Seattle for nine years following the death of her mother, but before Kate could relay this information to anyone else Taran came home unexpectedly, grabbed a hammer and clubbed her to death with it. Then Taran took Sam’s old car — is it really a surprise or a revelation that she stole it in the first place? — and sold it to a junkyard, bribing the guy in charge not to insist on an insurance company report that it was totaled before crushing it, and at first I thought Taran was having Kate’s body crushed inside the car à la Goldfinger, but it turns out Leeson and Weston had a more conventional shock sequence in mind. No sooner have Sam and Taran actually done the dirty deed than Taran swears out a rape complaint against him — even though what we’ve seen looked consensual — and when he confronts her and asks her why, she says that she’s wanted revenge against him for a long time. In one of those quirky long-term revenge twists Lifetime writers are becoming all too fond of, it turns out that nine years before Sam was having a sexual affair with Taran’s mother; Taran walked in on them having sex one day, and Taran’s mom responded to Sam’s abandoning her by committing suicide, slashing her wrists and getting into the bathtub. Taran found her mom’s dead, bloody body in the bath and immediately decided Sam was responsible for her death and she’d avenge herself on him — so she waited nine years until she got out of the asylum, then traced him, moved in next to him and set out to ruin his life the way she felt he had ruined her mom’s and driven her to suicide.

It comes to an ending that isn’t at all what we expect: from the norms of a Lifetime movie (or from the classic noir films of the 1940’s that inspired the genre) we think Sam is going to escape all this with a minimum of legal jeopardy (I was sort-of expecting that Taran would turn out to be an older woman — above the age of consent, at least — posing as a girl of high-school age as part of her plot), a new understanding and a reconciliation with his wife, whom I was expecting to be merely wounded, not killed, by Taran’s attack and to recover enough to go to the authorities with the information about Taran’s background that would lead them to arrest her. Instead it ends on a lakefront pier, where Sam goes to confront Taran, bringing Taran’s gun, and he pulls it on her. She encourages him to shoot her, and then the police come by and, seeing Sam holding a gun on Taran, naturally assume he’s the bad guy and she’s the victim. The cops call out to Sam to drop the gun and surrender, and when he doesn’t — he seems undecided whether to do that or to shoot Taran — the cops shoot him and he falls dead, while the cops treat Taran as a victim and let her go, sort of like Rhoda Penmark in the original stage version of The Bad Seed (where she lives, her mom dies and the big, shocking revelation that she’s the granddaughter of a serial killer dies with the mom; alas, the Production Code Administration forced Warner Bros. to change this ending for the film!). Those last fillips into melodrama and that nihilistic ending make Damaged one of Lifetime’s more haunting movies but also put it beyond any reasonable suspension of disbelief; it’s the sort of script that makes it seem like the writers were willing to do just about anything to get themselves out of the corners they’d written themselves into. It’s the sort of film where one wishes the writers and directors had known when to stop; a film just about an obsessed student going after her teacher would be more believable and more fun than Damaged turned out to be, and as with other, similar Lifetime movies with this sort of plot, I can’t help but wonder how a character can have a sexual relationship with the very person she (or he) hates and wants to destroy and still pull it off with a straight face!