Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Perfect Daughter (Artificial Person Productions, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

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

The “world premiere” Lifetime movie last night was The Perfect Daughter, a title which led me to assume Christine Conradt wrote it and it was another in her series of “The Perfect _____” movies (as opposed to her “_____ at 17” movies and her “The _____ S/he Met Online” movies). Wrong on both counts: it was directed by Brian Herzlinger from a script by Brian McAuley, and was originally shot as The Carpenter’s Daughter until someone at Marvista Entertainment or Lifetime itself decided to give it a moniker that would include the word “Perfect” to fit it into their long-running occasional series. The first 40 minutes or so were pretty disappointing, as we get to meet good little high-school senior Natalie Parish (Sadie Calvano) and her dad Martin Parish (Brady Smith, a better-looking man than usually plays a teenager’s parent in a Lifetime movie). Martin has a two-person building contractor business with his former brother-in-law, Nick Barnes (Johann Urb, who despite some formidable competition struck me as the sexiest man in the film), and he’s also been raising his daughter as a single parent since the death of his wife Sarah years earlier — long enough ago that Natalie has no living memory of her mom and the only evidence we see of her is a framed photo of the three of them taken while Natalie was still an infant. At the start of the film Natalie is running for student body treasurer against the ultra-popular Kalie (Lorynn York) and she fully expects to lose — only she wins (oddly, Herzlinger and McAuley depict Kalie’s class speech but not Natalie’s, keeping us in suspense for an act or two as to how the election turned out), and as a result Sam Cahill, Kalie’s boyfriend, dumps her and invites Natalie to the school hockey game that night (he’s the school’s star hockey player and is counting on his skill in that sport to get him a scholarship to college) and to a party at his place right after. Complicating things is that Sam’s father, attorney Brian Cahill (Parker Stevenson, who 40 years ago was Shaun Cassidy’s sidekick on the Hardy Boys show), just arranged for Martin and Nick to get a major remodeling job at a home in Deer Hills (we see a sign identifying the community as Deer Hills several times but it’s unclear whether that’s the name of the whole town or just the most affluent section of it) which involves building a pergola — and one of the few comic-relief moments in McAuley’s script shows the two agreeing with their prospective client that they can build him a pergola when they clearly have no idea what a pergola is. (Fortunately, it’s the 21st century and they can always look it up online: according to Wikipedia, “A pergola, arbor, or arbour is a garden feature forming a shaded walkway, passageway, or sitting area of vertical posts or pillars that usually support cross-beams and a sturdy open lattice, often upon which woody vines are trained. The origin of the word is the Late Latin pergula, referring to a projecting eave. As a type of gazebo, it may also be an extension of a building or serve as protection for an open terrace or a link between pavilions. They are different from green tunnels.”)

Alas, the next time Martin sees his daughter she’s in the middle of the road, clearly pretty much out of it, and she admits she drank too much at the party. Dad gets her into his truck and takes her to the emergency room, where she’s admitted, diagnosed with alcohol poisoning and also discovered to have had sex. She insists that she consented and that Sam Cahill was her partner — the party ended abruptly when the other guests caught them at it and left — but Dad is convinced she was raped and demands that police detective Schaffer (Drew Rausch) investigate the case as a rape. Schaffer accordingly calls in Sam Cahill for an interrogation, which naturally makes his father angry. Meanwhile Natalie is sitting at home alone and moping a lot, rejecting her dad’s attempts to get close to her, and this makes dad more and more convinced she was raped since the signs of her mental state seem to match those in a pamphlet Schaffer gave him called Symptoms of Sexual Assault. The melodrama ramps up even more when Natalie gets something that looks an awful lot like morning sickness and she gives herself a home pregnancy test, with her school friend Tess (Blaine Saunders) for moral support — and she finds she is indeed pregnant with Sam’s baby. (“Oh, no,” you go, “not another infallible pregnancy at a single contact.”) When they find out — Natalie breaks the news to Sam at the Cahill home, where she’s fled because daddy has become so angry and judgmental she can’t live with him anymore, and Sam’s mother Julie (Meredith Salenger) overhears them and tells Sam’s dad — Bruce Cahill offers to arrange an abortion at a clinic where they do the procedure simply by prescribing pills. Natalie goes to the clinic with Sam and they get the pills (they’re in a state with a parental notification law but Bruce Cahill, as an attorney, is able to get a judge to sign a bypass order) but Daddy confronts them there and Natalie flees the scene by stealing Sam’s car. Martin and Sam try to track her down, first at a lake where Martin had taken his daughter fishing and she’d been bored (which reminded me of the day my dad tried to take me fishing, and I was equally bored) until she actually caught something, and then at the Pink Motel. It seems that Natalie’s mom Sarah had been seeing another man and meeting him for trysts at the Pink Motel (which really exists; they shot at a monumentally tacky-looking one in Santa Monica) and had planned to leave her husband for him until she got sick, her boyfriend dumped her and she returned to her husband so he could take care of her while she was dying. It also seems that Julie Cahill was an ex-girlfriend of Martin’s — they dated until they broke up, she married Bruce and Martin married Sarah — one good thing about McAuley’s script is it shows just how closed-in a small-town environment can be and how it’s as much of a bad thing as it is a good one that everyone seems to know everyone else.

For the first hour or so The Perfect Daughter is the sort of movie that makes you wonder why you’re bothering to watch it — if you stick with it you’ll get angrier and angrier at Martin and think he, not his daughter, is the irresponsible one — but about midway through this film clicks into high gear. It becomes obvious that Herzlinger and McAuley want you to think of Martin as the villain — indeed, aside from Julie Cahill, virtually all the adults in the movie act irresponsibly and crazily and it’s Sam and Natalie who, having made their one big mistake (getting plastered at that party and having sex without “protection”), are far more responsible than the grownups in dealing with the aftermath and making competent, sensible decisions instead of letting their emotions run away with them — down to Natalie’s cold-blooded calculation that she and Sam (who have to work together anyway since she’s the student body treasurer and he’s the president) should indulge in as many public displays of affection as possible so her classmates will realize she wanted to have sex with him and he was not a rapist. A movie that seemed unbearably larded-on in the first half suddenly acquires real emotional heft and power, as McAuley’s writing improves and his characters take on multiple dimensions and become believable as human beings instead of stick figures in a Lifetime melodrama. He even dares an inconclusive ending: it ends with Natalie clutching the bottle of abortion pills (incidentally the “A”-word is never used on the soundtrack — this is still American television, after all) but unsure as to whether she wants to take them or carry the pregnancy to term and have the baby. (Given that I got my girlfriend pregnant when I was 24 and she was 18, and she had an abortion — thereby costing me the only child I will ever conceive because eventually I came out as Gay and haven’t had sex with a woman in over 33 years — Natalie’s and Sam’s dilemma strongly resonated emotionally with me.) For the first half of this film you might be tempted to turn it off or change the channel in mid-stream, but stay with The Perfect Daughter and it will provide you a wrenching emotional experience, hammered home not only by the subtlety of McAuley’s writing (for once a Lifetime movie does not come to a pat, easy conclusion; also, for once in a Lifetime movie, the characters grow, change and learn something about themselves over the film’s running time, especially when daddy Martin realizes that the reason he’s been so relentlessly overprotective of his daughter is fear that without a tight leash, she’d grow up like her mom and become sexually adventurous with multiple partners) but the quiet strength of Herzlinger’s direction and fine acting by a well-assembled cast — notably Smith as Martin, Stevenson as Bruce Cahill and Reiley McClendon, a stocky young man with a facial resemblance to the young Elvis, as Sam — he’s nice-looking but not so overwhelmingly attractive you’d wonder why half the girls in school aren’t carrying his kids!