Sunday, February 21, 2016

Pregnant at 17 (NB Thrilling Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Wrong Car Lifetime showed one of their “world premieres,” Pregnant at 17, written by Christine Conradt (usually a good sign; though Conradt’s scripts often descend into barely believable melodrama, at least she occasionally gives her characters some complexity and dimension, and her recent directorial debut with the Lifetime movie The Bride He Met Online, despite its formulaic and stupid title, was quite engaging) and directed by one of her frequent collaborators, Curtis James Crawford. For some reason the synopsis describes a quite different plot from the one we get: “When Sonia finds out her husband of 10 years is having an affair, she decides to get to know the young woman, Chelsea, he’s fallen in love with. Chelsea, a free spirit who believes in polyamory, brings a happiness and fulfillment to Sonia that she’s never experienced before — especially since her miscarriage which left her depressed and hopeless. The three form a polyamorous relationship until an unexpected turn of events sends all of their lives into a tailspin.” The fact that the synopsis is credited to one of the producing companies, Reel One Entertainment, just adds to the mystery of why it has so little in common with the actual film — though if they had shot the story they described, Pregnant at 17 would be not only far kinkier than the one we have but probably more entertaining as well.

The synopsis is right about the 10-year married couple, Jeff (Roark Critchlow) and Sonia (Josie Bissett, top-billed) Clefton, who are veterinarians who co-run an animal clinic and are well off; and about the miscarriage Sonia had 10 years earlier, which has put a chill on the marriage and her demeanor generally. They’re also right about Chelsea Sheridans (Zoé de Grand Maison — why is her last name “of the big house”?), the 17-year-old girl (though she’s told Jeff she’s 22 and he met her in a bar — we’re told everyone thinks she’s older than she is but even so no bartender who wanted to keep his job would serve her without carding her, so she must have faked an I.D.) who not only has an affair with Jeff but gets pregnant by him. Jeff offers Sonia the usual lame excuses for his long nights away from home — he’s always attending seminars or lectures or mixers or whatnot — until the night when Chelsea texts Jeff at home, Jeff calls her and they make a date for that night after Sonia has already gone to bed and overhears Jeff talking to her in the bathroom. (He’s so stupid about concealing his affair one wonders why Sonia hasn’t found out about it long ago; she tells her friend, a woman divorce attorney, that she’s suspected he’s having an affair, but if he’s being that blitheringly obvious about it she’d have found out the details long before.) Meanwhile, Chelsea, who works as a barista at a gelato place (and who has a sympathetic, motherly boss who has emotionally taken the place of her own mother, who’s dead) and is being raised by her dad Dom (Conrad Pla) — only he leaves her alone a lot when he goes out-of-town for long gigs as a fisherman (during the film he takes off for two weeks to join a crab boat, and Chelsea freaks out at the prospect that he may lose an arm doing that). Nonetheless, she’s decorous and sexually reserved enough so that when she starts collapsing at work and puking a lot, that motherly boss asks if she’s pregnant, and she takes a home test and finds out she is, there’s no doubt that Jeff is the father because he’s the only guy with whom she’s been having sex.

On their next date — the one she was arranging on that call Jeff took in the bathroom, and Sonia overheard — Chelsea breaks Jeff the double whammy: not only is she pregnant by him, she’s only 17 and therefore he’s guilty of statutory rape. Jeff responds coldly, breaking off the affair and coming home to find that Sonia has decided to divorce him and is demanding he move out. He also couldn’t be less interested in Chelsea’s baby-to-be even though he’s its dad; in the coldest scene in the movie he solemnly informs Sonia that the reason he’s being such a dick (in both senses) is he’s following his lawyer’s advice, and though we never meet his lawyer he’s apparently advised Jeff to coldly and calculatedly write off both the women in his life, quit the veterinary clinic and relocate elsewhere. Meanwhile, Sonia decides to track down the woman her husband was cheating on her with — only when they meet (in the maternity wing of a women’s clothing store), they decide they like each other and bond instantly. Where I thought this was going was along the lines of the 1941 classic The Great Lie — a similar triangle with George Brent, Bette Davis and Mary Astor (and a “doubles” movie since Davis and Astor both starred in versions of The Maltese Falcon) in which Astor temporarily seduces Brent away from Davis, they marry, they’re together long enough for Astor to get pregnant by him but then the marriage is annulled, and when Davis finds out Astor is about to have Brent’s baby the two hatch a plot to hide out in the desert for the requisite nine months until Astor’s baby is born and Davis can emerge and establish the baby as hers. I had visions of Sonia and Chelsea bonding over the baby and Chelsea hiding out so Sonia can claim that she had the baby, and that after her previous miscarriage she and Jeff lucked out the second time around. Alas, the ending Conradt wrote is less credible than either the polyamorous one Reel One Entertainment’s synopsis writer dreamed up or the Great Lie-influenced one I had in mind; instead, just before a commercial break a disconsolate Jeff is wandering out in the middle of the street and gets hit by an SUV (“Christine! You should be ashamed of yourself, pulling an old cliché like that!” I yelled at the screen at that point), which hospitalizes him and renders him non compos mentis for much of the subsequent action.

There’s also a subplot that turns out to supply the film’s climax: two years earlier, high-school student Chelsea witnessed her friend Mikey’s (Shawn Lawrence) convenience store getting robbed, ID’d the robber as schoolmate Greg Foster (Rogan Christopher), talked to the police and ultimately testified against him at trial. She’s remained in touch with Mikey and is also dating Adam Wilson (Jake Manley), Mikey’s grandson and the requisite age-peer boyfriend for Chelsea to move on to after circumstances break up her and Jeff. But neither Greg nor his sister Laren (Corina Bizim) have forgiven Chelsea for sending him to prison, and when he’s released on parole after serving just two years of a five-year sentence, Greg is out for revenge — which he gets by invading the home of Sonia while Chelsea is staying there and kidnapping both women, forcing Sonia to give him all the money and valuables from her safety-deposit box, then driving the women to the country (Greg takes Sonia while sister Laren, fully in on the plot, takes Chelsea), where he plans to force them to dig their own graves and then shoot them. Laren is horrified — she signed on to her brother’s plot only on his assurance it would not involve murder — and in the end Sonia and Chelsea manage to overpower and attack Greg and Laren with the tools at hand, and Chelsea grabs one of the guns and shoots Greg dead just when he’s about to strangle Sonia. The film ends with Sonia definitively divorced but nonetheless determined to adopt Chelsea’s baby — a girl they’ve named Annette, after Sonia’s mother — and the three girls in a rather unconventional but hardly polyamorous relationship. Pregnant at 17 is well done overall but suffers from Conradt’s addiction to creating “thrilling” scenes whether they either advance the plot or make sense, or not. Chelsea is a fascinating character, well played by the big-house woman, and both she and Sonia are considerably more multi-dimensional than the Lifetime norm (and the actresses playing them rise to the challenge), but the film as a whole sinks into the picturesque unbelievability of many of Conradt’s scripts even though the bond between Sonia and Chelsea is fascinating and deserved to be showcased in a better movie.