Sunday, October 9, 2016

Boy in the Attic (Pender Street Pictures, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

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

After Mommy’s Secret Lifetime re-ran a movie I’d missed from earlier this year, Boy in the Attic, and while it sounds like the people at Lifetime and their production companies for this one, Pender Street Pictures and Reel One Entertainment, wanted to create their own synthetic version of V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic because the Lifetime movies based on that and the sequelae in Andrews’ cycle were so successful in the ratings. It’s actually a considerably better story than that, written by Ken Sanders (creator of the Whittendale universe, though this does not take place in it) and with the script by Christine Conradt, who seems to have created much of the Lifetime genre but still does it better than anyone else. It’s yet another story about a woman who’s a single mom, Rachel Davis (Gina Holden), who in this case leaves her home in Washington state to come to an even smaller town, Chehalis, just 200 miles from Coburg, also in Washington, where the film’s prologue took place. In the prologue a man is shown dead in the kitchen of his home, though who he is and how he got that way are things we won’t learn until much later in the Sanders-Conradt script. Rachel drives with her daughter Callie (Abbie Cobb — one reviewer faulted her casting by noting she’s only 10 years younger than her on-screen mom, and she’s convincing enough as a teenager in the long shots but when director Paul Shapiro shoots her in close-up all of Cobb’s 31 years are all too evident) to close up the house where Rachel’s mom Evelyn (Christina Jastrzembska — she’s dead at the outset of the story but seen in enough flashbacks they needed an actress to play her) lived for decades before her recent death.

Rachel and Callie meet Rachel’s brother Marty (Kurt Evans); a young man named Jordan (Iain Belcher) who seems interested in Rachel; and the local sheriff, Urban Blackwell (Michael St. John Smith), who makes a dark reference to the fugitive he’s pursuing, Michael Collins, whom he darkly says “will never see the inside of a prison” because once he finds him, Sheriff Blackwell will simply kill him, as slowly and painfully as possible, because the crime Collins is fleeing from is the murder of Blackwell’s nephew, Ed Brinson (Kyle Rideout) — another character who’s dead at the start of the story but seen in flashbacks. While having a soy latte at the local coffeehouse — there are a few jokes about a town as remote as Chehalis having a coffeehouse that serves such hip fare, but what the hey, Washington is the home state of Starbucks — Callie runs into a hot young man named Luke (Max Lloyd-Jones, a hot — in both senses — young British actor who’s previously appeared on Lifetime in Girl Fight and The Unauthorized “Beverly Hills, 90210” Story, in which he played Jason Priestley and to my mind was sexier than the original!) She sees him around town in a few places and learns he’s an amateur artist who gives her sketches, including one of a rose which when you lift the flower you see the legend, “Callie Is Beautiful,” and another one of Callie herself. Naturally Callie is immediately smitten with this guy, and so it’s a shock to her when she finds out that he’s the boy who’s been hiding in their attic, and the noises of him moving around in their attic and occasionally using their shower (resulting in Callie finding the upstairs bathroom locked when she needed it) are the real-life source of the sounds that had led her and her mom to think the house was haunted.

Of course, it turns out that the nice young “Luke” is the fugitive Michael Collins (did Sanders and Conradt deliberately name him after the 1920’s Irish leader who was instrumental in winning Ireland its freedom from Britain?), though Michael is able to convince Callie that while he did kill Ed Brinson, he did so in self-defense. Apparently Michael was a homeless drifter who came to Chehalis and met up with Evelyn Davis in the parking lot of a supermarket. He helped her get her grocery bags into her car, and she hired him as a handyman until she died. Michael, it turned out, was the person who discovered Evelyn’s body and made the anonymous 911 call that reported her death — he hung up right when the operator asked for his name — and afterwards he went to work for Ed Brinton at $100 a day to build a fence on Brinton’s property. Only the construction took two weeks, running past Brinton’s maximum of $800, and when it was finished Brinton told Michael he wasn’t going to pay him because he didn’t think the work was good enough (sounds like Donald Trump!). Michael sneaked back into Brinton’s house, intending to raid Brinton’s cash stash but only for the $800 he was actually owed, but Brinton caught him and the two both reached for the gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney thanks you for his trip to Cabo) and eventually, while neither of them shot the other, Michael clubbed Brinton and killed him in self-defense. (Judging from the opening shot, I had assumed Brinton was in the drug business and was using himself, and his murder would have had something to do with drugs and Michael would have been totally innocent.) Michael tells all this to Callie and pleads with her to help him flee across the Canadian border. Callie does so by stealing her grandmother’s 1973 Lincoln Continental, and the two end up as terrible imitations of Bonnie and Clyde as Michael gets the “brilliant” idea to switch license plates with another car when they’ve stopped for gas (which they’re paying for). The station owner notices and calls the police, and there’s a race to see who will apprehend Michael first: the Chehalis city police, who will merely arrest him; or Sheriff Blackwell, who will torture and kill him. Meanwhile Rachel figures all this out — oddly both Michael and Callie use cell phones and none of the parties chasing them, including the police, think to use the phones’ GPS trackers to find them — and she joins the chase after Michael and her daughter.

Michael and Callie are finally trapped by Sheriff Blackwell, and Michael tears off into the woods after telling Callie to tell the sheriff Michael kidnapped her, then point him in the wrong direction so he’ll have a head start to Canada on foot. It’s not clear what happens to Michael but the city police arrive and arrest Blackwell just as he’s about to shoot down the fleeing Michael, and in the end we get a tag scene in which Rachel and Callie are getting ready to leave Chehalis, mission accomplished, and Callie receives a video message from Michael on her phone saying he got away to Canada and hopes to see her again … sometime. (I’d rather have had Michael arrested by the city police, tried and officially exonerated, and then serving as a witness against Blackwell in his trial — either that or a Dark Passage-style ending in which he ends up in another country but Callie joins him there.) Like Mommy’s Secret, Boy in the Attic is actually unusually well done for a Lifetime movie, with multidimensional characterizations (Michael in particular — he’s got a boyish charm but also a dark side that makes his more questionable actions believable) lived up to by a mostly good cast (though I could think of quite a few young Lifetime actresses that would not only have been more believable as Callie visually but could have played the part quite better) and a director, Paul Shapiro, with a real flair for suspense. It’s an indication of why Christine Conradt’s Lifetime movies routinely end up better than anyone else — she may have invented a lot of Lifetime’s formulae but she also does more with them, adding complexities and quirks that make her people richer and more credible than those of other, more slovenly Lifetime writers. Boy in the Attic may have started life as a V. C. Andrews knock-off, but on its own it’s considerably more appealing — it’s nicely ironic that the most openly villainous character is a member of law enforcement — even despite its rather unsatisfying ending that leaves the two young leads both alive but separated.