Sunday, April 3, 2016

Deadly Daycare (Feifer Worldwide/Lifetime, 2014)

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

Last night’s prime-time 8 p.m. Lifetime movie was not a “world premiere,” as the ones in that time slot usually are, but a two-year-old production from Feifer Worldwide (three separate credit cards told us the movie was “written by Michael Feifer,” “produced by Michael Feifer” and “directed by Michael Feifer,” and I suppose some day if Michael Feifer has a son he’ll be given a job with his dad’s productions and billed something like, “Associate Producer: Michael Feifer, Jr., a Michael Feifer Production”) called Deadly Daycare. Well, they’d already done The Perfect Nanny and Nightmare Nurse, so why not Deadly Daycare? The previews for it offered a show that would follow what’s oddly become one of Lifetime’s favorite tropes — the woman who gets obsessed with another woman’s kid and is convinced the child is (or should be) her own —though Feifer’s script had some glosses on it that made it a bit more interesting than that. We first meet Our Heroine, Rachel (Kayla Ewell), when she’s having a terrible dream from which she wakes and first makes sure her daughter Mia (played by twins Ariella and Isabella Nurkovic — it’s a common casting strategy to have a pair of twins play a very young child so the director can alternate between the two and get the film done in a short schedule while not violating the legal limits on how long a child performer can work during a day) is safe. Then, when she wakes up for her day taking care of Mia, she receives a visit from her estranged husband Daniel (Bryce Johnson), a city prosecutor and Mia’s dad, who says his hours and pay are being cut back and he won’t be able to contribute as much financial support as he’d been doing. So Rachel decides she’s going to have to look for a job and find a day-care center in which to put Mia. She gets the job relatively easily — before her marriage she had worked as a courtroom sketch artist and her former employer is willing and eager to take her back in that position — though there’s a complication in that her first sketch assignment is a murder trial in which her ex is the prosecutor.

Of course, as we could guess from the title, her experience with daycare is considerably less positive: she picks the Little Ones day-care center because the head of it, Barbara (Caia Coley), seems nice and has enough of an obsession with security that virtually the whole place is wired with surveillance cameras so anyone with a kid in the place can log on to their Web site and see where their “little one” is and what they’re doing — except that there are a few dead spots which the cameras aren’t covering. Little Ones is run more like a pre-school than a day-care center, with at least two teachers, Gabby (Christy Carlson Romano) and her assistant Rebecca (Michelle DeFraites), and the kids spend most of their day sitting at desks reading or doing art projects. Our first intimation that something is Not Quite Right with Gabby is when she takes little Mia aside and tells her she was supposed to draw a picture of herself and Gabby together, and instead she drew a horse. Then we get a scene in which Gabby takes Mia aside and insists that she’s her daughter, and her name is really Crystal, and if she doesn’t believe that … Eventually we learn that the car accident Rachel was dreaming about in her nightmares actually happened: one day while Rachel was still pregnant with Mia, Rachel and her then-husband Daniel were out for a drive when they encountered Gabby and her husband Troy (Tyler Rice) along with their young daughter Crystal. At first it was just Gabby and Troy asking for directions in the daylight and Daniel trying but failing to help them, but later that night Daniel and Rachel literally ran into Gabby and Troy. Gabby survived the accident with no discernible impacts — at least not physical ones — but Troy ended up paralyzed and in a wheelchair, and their daughter Crystal was killed.

When Rachel puts Mia into the Little Ones day-care center, Gabby immediately recognizes Rachel as the woman who, with her own husband, crippled Troy and killed their daughter, and so Gabby hatches a revenge plot that involves “reprogramming” Mia to accept Gabby, not Rachel, as her mom and to call  herself “Crystal,” while she ultimately either drives Rachel crazy or kills her, it’s not sure which. (Coherent plot explanations are not one of Michael Feifer’s strong suits as a writer, though this time the incoherence of Gabby’s scheme can be read as in itself a depiction of Gabby’s discombobulated mental state and her inability to reason her way through a criminal scheme that would actually make sense.) Gabby’s assistant Rebecca discovers the truth — or at least enough of it that she can report what’s going on to the police and give Gabby and the day-care center some unwelcome attention — so Gabby has her husband Troy run her down and kill her (she lingers in the hospital for a bit but then expires). Not only do we see Troy behind the wheel of his car without any indication that it’s been equipped with the special hand controls needed for a paraplegic to be able to drive, but both the civilian characters and the cops never seem to make the connection that a witness to the “accident” — the same witness that told the cops the driver deliberately aimed at Rebecca and therefore it was deliberate murder — also mentioned that the car had a handicapped license plate, and nobody makes the connection between the handicapped license plate on the murder car and the one on Troy’s car. There’s also a bizarre plot device in which Rachel goes to a shop that offers to sell spy cameras (the actor playing the proprietor, Brock Burnett, is quite attractive in a nerdy sort of way and I’d like to see more of him — in fact I was hoping he and Rachel would get together once she finally dumped her husband and divorced him) and buys one, then conceals it in the binding of a kids’ book in the Little Ones classroom (a plot gimmick I found pretty dumb — as did reviewer Wes Connors, who wrote, “That’s really not the best hiding place in a classroom. One recess, and the camera’s kaput”). She falls asleep while she’s parked outside the day-care center but is awakened in time by the sound of Gabby chewing out Mia (who’d previously come home with bruises on her arms that looked like the ones battered women get in Lifetime movies about abusive husbands) and telling her her name is Crystal and Gabby her real mother. Rachel, Mia’s real real mother, comes charging in to the day-care center, only to find that Gabby has already left it.

Ultimately, of course, it all comes down to a shoot-out finale in which Gabby comes to Rachel’s house determined to kidnap Mia — and Daniel, who’s been kept abreast of the whole situation by Rachel even though they’re at least theoretically no longer a couple, comes there to protect their daughter. The cops arrive, called by Rachel, but not before Gabby has shot Daniel (I was thinking Michael Feifer would have her shot paralyze him, and that would have been her intention — to make Rachel suffer having a disabled husband the way Gabby’s had to — but fortunately, perhaps, he didn’t go that far) and chased Rachel around the house while desperately trying to find Mia. Rachel had indeed fled the house with a baby bundle under her arm, but it turns out to be a doll Rachel took to fool Gabby — the real Mia is hiding in a closet, under solemn instructions from her mom (her real mom) not to say a word or make a noise, though ironically once the police arrive, Gabby tries to kill herself with the gun but it’s run out of bullets so she’s taken alive, and Daniel and Rachel are reunited, Rachel forgets all about Mia and has to run into the house frantically to rescue her from that closet. Then there’s a tag scene showing Daniel and Rachel, now reconciled (hey, there’s nothing better for putting your marriage back together than having a psycho nearly kill you and kidnap your kid!) and taking Mia to the beach (this is set in Los Angeles and a good chunk of it was actually shot there, though the courtroom pictured is actually in Orlando, Florida). The performances by the two female leads are actually quite good — though Kayla Ewell as Rachel has a kewpie-doll look that makes her look dumber than the character is supposed to be — and Feifer’s direction, especially in the nighttime exteriors, has a pleasantly Gothic quality that creates a sinister mood. The problem is Feifer’s script (do I need to trot out once again my old line that when a director is also the writer, he has no one to blame but himself for a lousy script?), full of bizarre coincidences and plot holes and, like a 19th century opera libretto, reliant for whatever logic it has on the characters behaving like complete idiots. On balance, Deadly Daycare (despite that title, which almost seems like a parody of the genre), is actually a better-than-average Lifetime movie and the kind of good clean sleazy fun we fans of this network look for on it, but it could have been a good deal better!