Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Wrong Child (Hybrid/Rapid Heart, 2016)

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

Often on Saturday nights Lifetime shows movies back-to-back with similar themes and plot premises — and often that’s a mistake because the similarities take some of the edge away from both films. That happened last night when they followed up Newlywed and Dead with The Wrong Child, which judging from the original air date of June 26, 2016 given on the page for it would appear to have been last week’s “Lifetime world premiere.” The Wrong Child is yet another Lifetime drama about a couple who suddenly find themselves confronted by a person who claims to be their long-lost kid, and while this one isn’t a patch on the genuinely moving and beautiful Lost Boy (in which we definitely learned the “long-lost son” was an impostor but his motives were kept powerfully ambiguous throughout), at least the first two-thirds of it were quite good, maintaining the suspense and powered by a gnomic performance by Robbie Davidson as Andrew Haight. (So far all this fascinating actor has done is this, a short and a single episode of the TV series Jane the Virgin. He deserves more; indeed, he deserves a real chance at stardom!) The couple who suddenly find their lives upended by this young man are Charles Callahan (Gary Daniels), a white guy with a British accent who’s supposedly a sensationally successful architect working on a $6 million project to redevelop the city (this is taking place in Malibu, and at least in some establishing second-unit shots Malibu is “playing” itself), and his wife Renée (Vivica A. Fox, top-billed), a voluptuous Rubens-esque Black woman who, in a neat switcheroo on what we expect from the stereotypes, is the member of the couple who comes from a family with money.

They have a daughter, Amy (played by someone billed simply as “Stevena” but listed on as Stevanna Jackson (I presume from the one-word name that she’s a singer — I still remember the time years ago TV Guide ran an article on the then-popular singer Brandy, which said that she had just recorded a duet with Monica, broken up with Maxwell and was now dating Mase and Usher, and I wondered, “Isn’t this woman allowed to know anybody with more than one name?”), though it’s clearly established that Amy is Renée’s daughter by a previous husband who died. (This seems odd since Stevena is light-skinned enough we could readily believe her as the Obama-esque offspring of a racially mixed couple.) Renée runs a bookstore (though it also sells CD’s — mislabeled DVD’s on the set — and clothes) with a white partner named Joyce (Tracy Nelson), and it functions both for her and for us as a place of refuge from the melodramatics that ensue when Andrew shows up and announces that he’s Charles’ long-lost son from a casual sexual encounter that took place 20 years ago in Florida before Charles and Renée met. (One thing that was nice about this movie was the actors playing Charles and Renée both pronounced the “t” in “often.”) Things start going awry almost immediately and reach a head when, just before he’s about to make the big presentation to the city officials who are is clients, Charles’ office is vandalized and spray-painted in blue paint with the graffito, “Time to Play.” Renée’s daughter Amy covers for Andrew, saying that they were just playing paintball and that’s why he has traces of blue paint on him, but we’re going, “Yeah, right.” About two-thirds of the way through the movie, though, what has previously been a subtle, suspenseful thriller, deliberately kept powerfully ambiguous by director David DeCoteau and writer Matthew Jason Walsh, takes a hard right turn into the usual Lifetime absurdity and melodramatic excess. We’ve already been suspicious of Andrew because he was shown much younger in a prologue in which he witnessed his mom stab his abusive father to death, and we first were introduced to him from an apartment across the street from the Callahan home spying on them and photographing them with a long-lensed camera. Later we saw him putting bugs all over their house — singularly obvious ones one would think the Callahans would notice — so we’ve already been conditioned to think he’s up to no good but precisely what no-good he’s up to remains a mystery.

The turning point at which this movie goes from effective suspense drama to typical Lifetime sleaze is when Andrew — whose real name, we later learn, is Owen, though “Haight” does appear to be his legal last name — goes to Renée’s bookstore and badgers Joyce over her insistence on researching his background on the Internet, then kills her and for good measure torches the store so her body will be consumed and it’ll look like she was killed in an accidental fire. Then we get a tense scene between Owen and Charles Callahan in which writer Walsh throws us the typical Lifetime surprise-twist curveball: Charles hired Owen in the first place as part of a plot for him to impersonate an alleged long-lost son. The idea was to get Renée’s family to give Owen $500,000 to study medicine at UC Berkeley, only instead of going to school Owen would simply disappear; he’d get $50,000 as a cut and the rest would go to Charles, who it turns out isn’t a successful architect at all but a lousy investor who has already lost all his wife’s own money and fallen so far behind on the mortgage they’re about to lose that spectacular Malibu home. Only Owen has other ideas; we’re not all that sure what they are and we get the impression he isn’t all that clear either, but they seem to involve taking over the Callahan family, killing Charles and Renée and ending up with Amy, who he has the hots for (what a surprise!). Robbie Davidson’s performance is incredible, bringing more to Walsh’s silly script than it deserves and making us believe in the character even though when we think about it later, we’re wondering, “Why the hell was he doing that?” Vivica Fox and Stevena are also quite good, but Gary Daniels is at sea in a role several sizes too big for him; unlike Davidson, he can’t make his good-guy-to-bad-guy transition even remotely convincing, though in one way he’s right for the part: he’s so good at conveying ineptitude we can readily believe he’ll do no better as a crook than he did as an architect. Still, The Wrong Child — the first two-thirds of it, anyway — is chillingly effective suspense melodrama and well worth seeing even after it takes that hard right turn into typical Lifetime unbelievability!