Monday, July 4, 2016

My Life as a Dead Girl (My Life Productions/Reel One Entertainment/Lifetime, 2015)

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

The film was My Life as a Dead Girl, an evocative title that reminded me of Ed Wood’s unfilmed script I Awoke Early the Day I Died, and it was directed by Penelope Buitenhuis (who also made the previous night’s Lifetime “world premiere,” Newlywed and Dead) from an “original” story by Adam Meyer which was turned into a screenplay by him and Lifetime’s best writer, Christine Conradt. Though she didn’t come up with the original story, enough of this script shows the Conradt touch — particularly the complexity of at least some of the characters and the way she plays with the audience’s sympathies — that she probably should be considered a Schreiber on this project. The story opens in Portland, Oregon, on whose mean streets works teenage prostitute Brittany (a first-rate performance by Cassandra Scerbo, who proves herself fully attuned to her character’s rich characterization in Conradt’s and Meyer’s script). She’s having run-ins with her scruffy but not entirely unattractive pimp Oscar Jackson (Chad Rook), who wants both money and sex from her — he shows up at her ratty apartment drunk, horny and convinced that she’s holding out on him. She is, of course; she’s trying to save money not only to keep paying the rent on the apartment but some day to flee and make it to Jamaica (yes, the one in the Caribbean) where she hopes she can find work as a bartender … well, it beats hooking. During the course of her work she meets panhandler Chelsea White (Kirsten Prout), and though at first they’re hostile to each other — Chelsea is begging for spare change on a corner Brittany thinks is “hers” — eventually they strike up a friendship. Chelsea wants to get enough money together for a bus ticket to Steveson, also in Oregon (though for a while I was a bit confused and thought she wanted to go to Houston), the small town where her aunt Kim (Keegan Connor Tracy, who looks enough like Kirsten Prout we can readily believe they’re part of the same family — kudos to casting directors Candice Elzinga and Aaron Griffith for avoiding the usual trap of so many movies in which people who don’t look at all alike are passed off as biological relations!) lives with her husband Donnie (Ken Tremblett). Brittany and Chelsea hatch a plot to steal back Brittany’s nest egg which Jackson (he’s referred to throughout by his last name) has stolen, and Brittany gets the money but Jackson catches them and gives chase. Brittany gets away with the money but Chelsea, whom Brittany had wear her red hoodie, gets shot in the back by Jackson and killed.

Brittany calls in an anonymous tip to the police but hangs up when asked to identify herself, and having been given Donnie’s and Kim’s address by Chelsea before she was killed Brittany uses some of the money to buy a bus ticket to Steveson and impersonate Chelsea (whom no one else in her family has seen since she was a little kid, so Brittany can get away with the impersonation even though she and Chelsea don’t look at all alike aside from both being teenage white women). “Chelsea” is welcomed into the family with open arms, and though Lifetime has done plenty of stories about people showing up on other people’s doorsteps claiming to be their long-lost relatives, fortunately Buitenhuis (whose direction here, obviously inspired by a stronger script, is considerably better than it was in Newlywed and Dead — can we hope she’ll get a shot at a feature film once that big glass ceiling in Hollywood finally cracks?), Meyer and Conradt avoid the phony suspense of is-she-or-isn’t-she. Instead they follow Alfred Hitchcock’s precept of letting the audience know in advance what’s going on and building suspense over when and how the characters will find out and what will happen when they do. Donnie and Kim enroll the supposed Chelsea in Steveson High — “Home of the Bobcats!” its signs proclaim — and Brittany a.k.a. Chelsea flees in horror from her first class, a history lesson, when the teacher gives a pop quiz and she knows none of the answers. Fortunately she attracts the attentions of fellow student Zach (Adam DiMarco), who offers to tutor her but whose interest in her obviously runs to far more than just her intellectual well-being. Meanwhile, Brittany also sticks up for nerd and bullying victim Shannon (Genevieve Buechner) against her tormentor, Kayla (Louriza Tronco), who not only has her posse tear up Shannon’s advanced placement chemistry notes just before the class final but literally forces her to act like her pet dog. (One wonders why, if Shannon is supposed to be so smart, she didn’t type up the notes on her computer — especially when, at Brittany’s urging, Zach offers to e-mail her his notes on the same class which he took the year before.) The tension mounts as Kim and Donnie, appalled by “Chelsea’s” tales of being abused by her various foster parents (a detail she learned from the real Chelsea during their brief friendship — she also received a present from Chelsea, a handmade butterfly pin Chelsea’s mom had made for her before dying in an accident when Chelsea was eight, thereby propelling Chelsea into the foster-care system since at the time Kim and Chelsea’s mom had been feuding and so Kim refused to take Chelsea in) and not being educated at all, either in school or at home, decide to research her background.

The film also periodically cuts back to Portland, where police detective Whalen (a nice no-nonsense performance by Kyra Zagorsky) is convinced Oscar Jackson murdered the mystery girl — unlike a lot of cops in thriller movies, she takes the anonymous tip seriously — but can’t establish a connection between them even once the girl is identified as Chelsea White. We also learn that Jackson — whom at first we assumed was just a skuzzy street pimp but turns out to have enough criminal irons in various fires he can afford a Mercedes-Benz (his friends all drive Porsches, I guess, but he’s not the kind of person who would make amends) and, once he figures out where Brittany has gone (from driving by her apartment right when the manager is throwing out her belongings), can take off long enough to drive to Steveson and hunt her down. Meanwhile, Zach is tutoring Brittany and pestering her to go on a date with him, and she finally agrees only if he’ll let her tell him her big secret when they’re out together. They go to a reasonably fancy Mexican restaurant and Brittany, still in “Chelsea” guise, tells Zach that she ran away from a particularly abusive foster home — and he’s cool with it until she tells him she was a teen prostitute, whereupon he gets angry and confused, bolts from the restaurant after leaving enough money to pay their bill, and totally upsets Brittany until he approaches her the next day at school and apologizes. They eventually make up, but at their next attempt to date they’re waylaid by Jackson, who still wants to kill Brittany — and, fortunately, by Detective Whelan, who’s pieced the whole thing together but not before Donnie, discovering an envelope from the Oregon Department of Social Services which Brittany had intercepted that contains a photo of the real Chelsea, realizes he’s been had and Brittany is not really his wife’s niece. (I had thought the big reveal would come from Donnie and Kim seeing one of the media reports identifying the dead girl as Chelsea White, showing her photo and asking people with information about her murder to come forward, but Meyer and Conradt didn’t do much with that plot thread.) Eventually it all ends more or less happily, with Jackson taken down and Brittany with both a family and a boyfriend — Donnie and Kim decide to adopt her legally and Zach is still very much in the picture.

My Life as a Dead Girl succeeds on nearly all counts, from the complex characterization of Brittany — and, wisely, Meyer and Conradt avoided a long, dull expository scene explaining just how Brittany ended up as a prostitute (we presume she was a runaway from her own bad foster situation and Jackson picked her up, seduced her and brought her out into “the life,” but we don’t have to have that spelled out for us) and let us see her as a decent girl at heart but one who had been forced by circumstances and her own survival needs into some horrible aspects of life. The film is glued together by Cassandra Scerbo’s marvelous performance as Brittany, beautifully balanced between giving the character the right “edge” and still keeping her sympathetic; especially when she tells Zach she feels responsible for someone else’s death, we know she’s right (she did dress the real Chelsea in her jacket, so Jackson mistook Chelsea for Brittany and shot her) but it doesn’t evaporate our sympathy for her, our desire to see her find a safe harbor in life and get beyond the terrible things she had to do to live in Portland. My Life as a Dead Girl is a good thriller and it’s also something more than that, a message movie about families and connections — remember that the real Chelsea met the fate she did because Kim wouldn’t take her in after her mom died because she was still feuding with her sister over the sister’s boyfriend — and the need for people to reach out and trust each other as well as the dangers of living a lie, even for the best of motives. My Life as a Dead Girl was utterly engrossing and I hope that Cassandra Scerbo gets the star parts she deserves based on her portrayal here, just as I can root for Penelope Buitenhuis to get some more substantial assignments if and when the glass ceiling against female directors finally crumbles!