Sunday, February 5, 2017

High School Lover (Elysium Bandini Studios, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last night was Lifetime’s latest “world premiere,” a story called High School Lover which was illustrated in the promos by a two-shot of an almost unrecognizable James Franco and a young actress named Paulina Singer, which made it seem like it would be a story of a middle-aged man becoming sexually obsessed with a high-school-age nymphet (sorry to borrow your word, Vladimir Nabokov) and ruining himself and her in the process. Instead it turns out that Paulina Singer is playing 17-year-old high-school senior Kelley Winters ( spells the first name the more conventional way, “Kelly,” but “Kelley” is what we see on screen) and Franco is playing her father, cinematographer Rick Winters. The movie opens with a film-within-the-film scene in which Rick is shooting a movie involving young actors, including a female lead who complains that the line, “Of all the gin joints in all the world, he has to walk into mine,” is unmemorable and should be changed. (Just in case we didn’t get the point — and it’s possible a lot of Lifetime’s audience is as clueless about film history as the character — one of the other people on the set mentions that the line is famously from the classic Casablanca.) Kelley is suffering through a major bout of teen alienation that seems to have been triggered by the death of her mother (we’re never told how mom died) and her dad’s uncomfortably rapid remarriage to former model Samantha (Julia Jones).

She also hangs out with high-school friends Allison (Lana Condor) and Larry (Tyler Alvarez) — Allison, like Kelley, is straight but Larry is what the activists and social-service people would probably call “questioning,” attracted to Allison but also interested in exploring sex with other men. Somehow — the script by Amber Coney and Jessica Dube is a bit ambiguous about how this happens — the three teens wangle an invitation to a private party at an underground club where Kelley meets movie star Christian Booth (François Arnaud), who has a reputation for playing romantic leads in so-called “chick flicks” but wants — or at least says he wants — parts that will establish himself as a serious actor. He also says that he’s 26 and has been working since he was five, and he doesn’t seem to think being a Hollywood star is all that great a fate even though millions of other men his age would kill to get where he is. Christian has the hots for Kelley as soon as he sees her, and despite the resistance of her dad — who grounds her for two weeks after she arrives late from that party and he learns that she and Allison didn’t spend the night studying together, as Kelley had said they were doing — Kelley and Christian drift into an affair that at first stops short of actual sex (she’s only 17 and therefore it would be statutory rape for Christian to have sex with her) but crosses one line when Christian flies Kelley across the city in his private helicopter and Kelley moves her head over his lap and apparently goes down on him as he’s flying the copter. The film is at its best when the writers and director Jerell Rosales plunge our three wild-eyed high-school kids into Christian and his orbit and make the story literally a modern-dress version of Cinderella — not only do Christian and Kelley become a dream pair but Allison and Larry both end up in the orbit of Tim, a Black stage magician (I thought he was the sexiest guy in the film and the actor is regrettably unidentified so far on the film’s page) who’s Bisexual and into three-ways. Larry also gets to snort coke — yes, it’s the sort of depiction of Hollywood’s inside where drugs are passed around like party favors — and the three get to do a lot of riding around in Christian’s big white stretch limousine.

Writers Coney and Dube throw a few roadblocks into the budding relationship between Kelley and Christian — including one neat scene in which Kelley sees the latest issue of People, whose cover announces a reconciliation between Christian and his immediately former girlfriend — but Christian is able to win her back by persuading her that was just publicity B.S. Eventually, half an hour before the end, the writers and director Rosales get Christian and Kelley into bed together — the script makes an oddly Bill Clinton-ish distinction between getting a blow job and having “sex” — whereupon Christian suddenly turns into a typical Lifetime villain, showing up at Kelley’s high school and serving notice that now that he’s taken her cherry he feels like he owns her. To further boil the melodramatic plot, Kelley’s hated stepmother Samantha reveals that she had an affair with Christian years before, when he was an up-and-coming actor and she was a model, and she knew from her own experience that he was “bad news” for Kelley — and Christian goes out of his way to insult Kelley’s dad Rick, saying that Rick is the sort of man who could be content with Christian’s “sloppy seconds” and showing up on the set of Rick’s latest movie, apparently with the intent of getting the director to fire Rick. Instead Rick angrily confronts Christian, and their argument gets filmed on smartphones and “goes viral.” Christian shows up at the home of Kelley and Samantha with a tire iron, intending to smash his way in and do heaven knows what — they stupidly try to hide in the basement and, though they then do the sensible thing and call the police on 911, they don’t tell the cops their address (though maybe we were supposed to think their phones had GPS devices and the cops could find them without a street address to go to), Christian finds and confronts them until Rick, who left the set of his movie to go home and pull the satyriasist star off his daughter and his wife, shows up and the two men have a conflict that at first looks like Christian has offed Rick. Eventually it turns out Rick is O.K. and the nuclear family, such as it is, returns to normal.

High School Lover is one of those frustrating films that could have been better if the writers had explored more of the issues involved instead of running a potentially interesting situation into the usual Lifetime tropes. I kept wondering how Christian Booth, if he’s supposed to be such a big movie star, can do normal human things like walk up to Kelley and her friends on a beach without any hint that anyone recognizes him — in real life stars get mobbed by fans when they try to do that and have entourages around them virtually 24/7 to protect them — and also how Christian seems blithely oblivious to the potential consequences of courting and bedding a 17-year-old. Even if he escaped prosecution for statutory rape, the scandal certainly wouldn’t be good for his career! Also he doesn’t seem to have a manager, an agent or a personal staff around him running interference; I kept expecting there to be someone in his entourage warning him about the potential legal and career consequences of his affair with Kelley, and possibly saying, “Oh, shit, here we go again,” as Christian’s dick once again leads him into potentially career-ending complications. Another issue I’d have liked this story to explore is the way a real-life Christian could have used his star power over Rick; I’d have wanted a scene in which Christian told Rick, “I can make your career — or I can break it. Let me sleep with your daughter, and maybe I’ll hire you to shoot my next movie.” A situation like that would have given James Franco a legitimate dramatic conflict to play — protect my daughter or boost my career? — instead of having him move through the film haplessly and express his frustration with the situation by doing little more than glower. There is a hint towards the end that Christian is going to use his “pull” with Rick’s director (when he shows up on Rick’s set he says he’s there “just to see my old friend, who’s directing”) to have him fired, but the writers make surprisingly little of it. Once again a real-life Christian might well have told that director, “Get rid of Rick and I’ll be in your next movie — and with my star power attached you can do that dream project you’ve been wanting to make for years!” Instead of these deeper, richer possibilities (had I been writing this I might have even flirted with a Seven Keys to Baldpate-style meta-ending in which the entire story turns out to be the plot of Christian’s latest movie!), Coney, Dube and Rosales seem content to shove a potentially interesting situation into the usual Lifetime mold, including Christian inexplicably turning from spoiled-brat star to total psycho in the last few acts, and by refusing to explore some of the darker possibilities of their story they actually make their film seem worse than the conventional Lifetime fare.