Last night’s Lifetime “world premiere” movie was a piece so obscure there isn’t even a page for it on imdb.com yet (either under its release title or its working title, Mommy’s Little Secret): Mommy’s Secret, a weirdie in which the central characters are Lifetime’s usual dysfunctional suburban family: single mom Anne Harding (Charisma Carpenter), her soccer-star daughter Denise (Sarah Grey) and her … well, sometimes he’s referred to as her son and sometimes as her stepson, Kyle (the actor who plays him isn’t identified on any of the online sources I’ve been able to find, which is a real pity since he’s not only cute he’s obviously talented and gets to shine because he’s playing the story’s only truly multidimensional character). At the beginning Kyle sidles up to Denise during one of her soccer practices and bums some money off her — she tries to tell him their mom has told her not to give him any money, but he pleads and she relents. We immediately think he’s into drugs, especially when Denise tells him he needs “help” and he says he doesn’t, but when she asks, “What are you going to do with it, double down?,” we realize his destructive addiction isn’t drugs, but gambling.
This scene occurs right after an opening in which we’re shown a bank being robbed by a man with a moustache and beard, wearing a loose-fitting coat and communicating with the teller exclusively with written notes. (Of course, as soon as director Terry Miles gave us the insert shot of the note reading, “I have a gun on you,” I immediately supplied the joke from Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run: “What does this mean, ‘I have a gub on you’?”) The robber escapes on a bicycle and then gets into a silver SUV parked a safe distance away. The big secret is that Anne Harding is actually the bank robber; she was threatened by Quinlan (the darkly handsome Amos Mitchell), the proprietor of the card room where Kyle does his gambling, who’s demanded that Anne rob banks for him in male drag to raise the money to pay Kyle’s gambling debts to him. It’s not really clear what relation Kyle is to the rest of the family — at times he’s Anne’s son, at times he’s her stepson, and we get the impression he was the product of a previous marriage of Anne’s husband, who’s now deceased; but whatever relation he is to Anne, she feels enough motherly bonds towards him that she agrees to Quinlan’s plan to make sure Quinlan and the thugs who work for him don’t rough Kyle up in lieu of payment. For the second bank robbery Miles shoots Anne from considerably closer than he did the first time — close enough we can see her facial hair is outrageously fake (it reminded me of the hilarious gag in Buster Keaton’s last silent film, Spite Marriage, in which he played an aspiring actor who makes a mess of his face trying to apply the crêpe whiskers with spirit gum) and the coat she’s wearing is awfully baggy (it’s one of her late husband’s coats she fished out of a cardboard box containing his belongings) — and her daughter Denise starts to catch on when she has to abandon the bike and Denise sees a photo of the bike online and recognizes it as Kyle’s.
Lifetime didn’t advertise this movie as based on a true story, but I found an online post at http://www.inquisitr.com/3569312/mommys-secret-lifetime-movie-loosely-inspired-by-true-story-of-bank-robbing-mothers-stars-charisma-carpenter-sarah-grey/ that cited at least three real-life suburban moms who became bank robbers, including one named Crystal Little — and the author of the article, Traciy Reyes, suggested that the use of the word “Little” in the original working title of this film may have been inspired by Crystal Little. “Considered ‘the fixer’ of the family, Crystal Little was desperate for money when she became the caretaker for her sick mother,” Reyes wrote. “With bills mounting, she decided to wear a disguise and hit up the banks around town. People who knew Crystal Little were absolutely shocked that she could be involved in such criminal activity. The devoted mom worked for ‘the University of Kentucky’s Office of Research Integrity, an organization obsessed with rules and guidelines in the pursuit of supporting the institution in promoting ethical conduct of research,’ according to the Washington Post.” It sounds like the real Crystal Little’s story might have made an even more interesting movie than the one we got — the trauma of a woman robbing banks to pay the medical bills of her sick mother under the U.S.’s atrocious profit-driven health-care non-system would have made magnificent irony, and so would have the clash between her job enforcing standards of ethics and integrity in research and the criminal life she was leading on the side. (In the movie Anne Harding works in a beauty parlor, though there’s a scene that indicates she previously worked in Hollywood as a makeup artist.) Denise figures out that her mom is the bank robber about a third of the way through the film, though she doesn’t know what to do about it; she goes into a sort of helpless, demoralizing angst that causes her to blow her team’s first playoff game (important because a college recruiter was in the audience and Denise needs a soccer scholarship to be able to afford college at all) and traces Kyle to Quinlan’s poker room, where she risks her own life dragging him out of there when he’s only lost $5,000 before he can lose any more. (On the way out Kyle protests that at first he won, until then he started losing; anyone who’d seen more than two or three movies about gambling could have warned him that Quinlan was stacking the games to let him win until he was hooked, then started rigging the games against him.)
Two-thirds of the way through the movie Denise figures out her mom’s pattern and accosts her when she’s just emerged from the latest bank she was sent to rob, and she insists that mom get into her car (she’s actually borrowed it from her school friend, an Asian-American girl named Brooke) and drive home — where, once they get home, they find the FBI waiting for them. It seems that all the time Anne has been robbing banks, the local police have been clueless but the FBI has been onto them because they’d had Quinlan’s poker club staked out for a year. Apparently it was never just a poker club; it was a front for money-laundering, and though this really isn’t explained by the committee-written script (there are four credited writers, John Shepphird, Lynn Grant Beck, Steve Jankowski, and Barbara Kymlicka — Kymlicka’s credit is a bit of a surprise because most of the movies I’ve seen on Lifetime she wrote take place in Ken Sanders’ Whittendale universe and are about older rich men sexually exploiting young women for money — and there are no telltale “ands” or ampersands to indicate whether the writers were working on it consecutively or concurrently), we assume that the FBI has been able to get Anne immunity from prosecution if she helps them entrap Quinlan. The writing committee throws us a curveball — though, given Lifetime’s genre conventions, not an unexpected one — by having Quinlan kidnap Denise at the end, but eventually the FBI comes just as Quinlan is about to fly out of the country in a helicopter with his ill-gotten gains (and presumably dispose of both Anne and Denise by pushing them out of the aircraft while it was aloft), Quinlan is arrested, mom is free and Denise plays a great game on her next playoff and gets her college scholarship after all. If you can accept the sheer unlikelihood of it all, Mommy’s Secret is actually a better-than-average Lifetime movie, more or less coherently plotted and vividly staged by Terry Miles, who has a real flair for suspense editing and the sort of low-keyed realistic action a story like this calls for; it’s also well acted, even though the characters (except for Kyle) aren’t really that complicated or challenging to the people playing them.