Sunday, May 15, 2016

Troubled Child (Jane E. Ryan Productions, Filigrana Films, Hornil Brothers Productions, 2012)

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

I missed last night’s “world premiere” Lifetime movie I Didn’t Kill My Sister! but got my Lifetime “fix” anyway via the movie they showed after that from 10 p.m. to midnight, Troubled Child. This was actually a “problem movie” from 2012 in which the central character is Annika Williams (Leslie Stevens), who once had ambitions to be a dancer until she met, fell in love with and married Zeb Williams (Carlton Wilborn), a minister who took her back to the small town of Annevar (its precise location in the U.S. is pretty indeterminate but it was actually “played” by L.A. and/or its suburbs) and settled in with her. When the film starts they are raising two children; one, son Jarren (Patrick Nicolas), is their natural offspring but the other, daughter Lexi (McKenzie Clayton), is adopted. It’s worth noting that Zeb Williams is Black and his wife Annika is white, and this is not at all an issue in the plot — however despairing it may seem to work for social change, some taboos have definitively come down — though the actor playing Jarren looks too dark to be believable as the child of a mixed-race couple and the girl playing Lexi is lighter-skinned and more credible as a mixed-race child even though she’s the one we’re told was adopted! Anyway, the Williamses decide to adopt again when they meet 11-year-old Carl (a magnificent performance by Andy Scott Harris), whom they fall in love with immediately and who at first seems a totally disarming and with-it kid … but given the film’s title, we know better well before the characters do. Carl turns out to be an angry kid with a nasty temper that leads him to kill Lady, the Williamses’ family dog; chew out a baseball coach who puts him in the outfield when Carl thinks he should be pitching; lock his adoptive mother Annika in the family basement and leave her there all day until Jarren comes home and rescues her; later, suddenly push Annika into the path of an oncoming SUV — the driver dodges out of her way just in time — and ultimately do something on a playground involving some sort of winch, block and tackle or something that leads to a girl in Carl’s school being clobbered in her eye. Carl then goes to visit her in hospital and, in an eerie case of mixed signals, squeezes her arm while she’s helpless in the hospital bed and then throws down a bunch of flowers on the bed.

The Williamses’ marriage nearly breaks up over Carl because he gets along fine with dad but is consistently hateful and hostile with mom. At one point Zeb Williams shows Carl an elaborate model train set and explains that his father built this for him and it took him years, and I immediately assumed on the Chekhov principle that if you establish the existence of a pistol in act one it has to be fired in act three, that at some point Carl would go into a towering rage and smash the train model. Instead Carl is fascinated by it and stares at it for hours, and the noise the model train makes reminds him, Proust-style, of the sound of a real train where we soon realize that something traumatic happened to him that’s determining how he’s behaving now. Eventually the Williamses, after being palmed off by therapists who say they need to give Carl time because he’s still “adjusting,” realize their new son is seriously mentally ill and take him to a therapist named Elizabeth (Dee Wallace, making a welcome appearance — ironically Charles and I had recently seen her again in her star-making performance in E.T. in 1982), who commits him to an inpatient facility that particularly specializes in the treatment of Carl’s disease, Reactive Attachment Disorder, or RAD for short. Apparently kids get RAD when they’re abandoned by their mothers in the first 33 months of their lives, and in Carl’s case a lot more terrible stuff happened to him, including being sexually molested both by one of his mom’s boyfriends and a woman at a foster home he was sent to after he was taken away from his mom, who’d locked him in a room in a building next to train tracks. He’s been in and out of so many foster homes the file on him practically takes up all of a bankers’ box, and as Annika reads it she becomes more and more horrified and determined to keep her family together and get Carl whatever sort of help he needs to recover.

The ending was fairly typical Lifetime — Carl escapes from the facility, somehow gets back home and threatens Annika with a knife — only she out-wrestles him, gets it away from him and subdues him long enough for the cops to take him into custody and get him back to the facility. But the whole experience has made Annika realize that she really does love Carl after all, despite his problems. But the film as a whole was surprisingly sensitively done; the writer (and also the producer) was Jane Elizabeth Ryan and the director was Jolene Adams, who not only got first-rate performances from her leads but staged this story in a quite atmospheric fashion. Andy Scott Harris as Carl Wiliams wears his hair in an early-Beatles pudding-bowl (his current head shot on has him with much shorter hair that shows off the huge size of his ears — but then Clark Gable became a major star despite his ears) and director Adams and cinematographer Carmen Cabana shoot him as almost a noir character, keeping his face in half-shadow almost throughout and projecting him as a morally ambiguous character, driven by demons even he doesn’t understand and capable of glare-ice switches in his overall affect and mood. The film got shown at several festivals showcasing films by women, including the Independent Women’s Film Festival (where Adams, Ryan and Leslie Stevens all won awards) and the Bel-Air Festival (two awards: an Audience Award and an acting award for Andy Scott Harris), so it obviously was aimed at some sort of theatrical release instead of just ending up on Lifetime. It’s also quite good, especially in the context of what this network usually shows; though the subject matter is more or less typical Lifetime, the presentation is genuinely sensitive and caring, and as frustrating as Carl is both for the characters and the audience, we really want to see him learn to control his demons and recover from his mom’s early-childhood abandonment (even though one Lifetime contributor noted that Carl’s background as depicted could also mean he’ll grow up to be a serial killer). Troubled Child was one of the rare gems Lifetime throws out and makes up for a lot of the garbage that afflicts this network!