Monday, March 6, 2017

Custody (Lucky Monkey Pictures, Mustard & Co., JuVee Productions, Lifetime, 2016)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched an especially compelling movie on Lifetime: Custody, which they identified as a “Premiere” (not a “World Premiere”!) even though, judging from the stellar names both in front of and behind the camera — Viola Davis and Hayden Panettiere are the stars and the writer/director is James Lapine, best known for writing the books for Stephen Sondheim’s musicals Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Passion — and also from the frequent blipping of swear words, I assume this film was intended for theatrical release. Sara Diaz (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a single mother with two kids, son David (Jaden Michael) and daughter Tia (Bryce Lorenzo — a girl named Bryce?). When David comes to school with bruises that indicate his mom may have abused him, the school calls New York’s Child Protective Services department, who immediately take both David and Tia away from Sara and schedule her for a hearing in family court either to set conditions for their return or remove them permanently. Sara is not surprisingly totally freaked out by this, especially when she ends up in the courtroom of formidable Judge Martha Schulman (Viola Davis) and a blonde woman from an upper-class background, Alexandra “Ally” Fisher (Hayden Panettiere), is appointed to be her attorney. Judge Schulman is conducting the hearing at such a rapid pace that Ally has to take the case without knowing the slightest thing about what it is, let alone having a chance to confer with her client in advance.

The young, naïve 25-year-old lawyer is up against no fewer than three people on the other side: a woman counsel appointed as a guardian ad litem to represent the best interest of the kids; Santoro (Raúl Esparza from the current cast of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, playing essentially the same character, a relentless prosecutor), representing Child Protective Services; and Keith Denholz (Dan Fogler), representing New York City’s office of corporate counsel (essentially their version of a city attorney) and if anything even more determined to take Sara’s kids away from her than Santoro is. (He’s also got the hots for Ally and makes a series of embarrassingly crude passes at her.) Santoro is especially up against it because on the last case he worked, he recommended returning a 5-year-old to the mother as she was coming out of drug rehab — only mom relapsed almost immediately, left the kid alone at home while she went out to “party,” and the child died of starvation. So he’s clearly bending over backwards to give Sara a hard time next she and her children be the next black mark on his résumé. As for Keith, he keeps springing surprise documents on the court, including a revelation that Sara has a criminal record for drug possession — her ex-husband Shawn (Sharrieff Pugh), father of David and Tia, was a drug dealer and smuggler who’s currently serving a prison sentence, though he hid one of his drug shipments in Tia’s diaper bag and that got Sara charged with being part of his drug operation. The charges were eventually dropped but they weren’t expunged from her record, and Keith dredges them up again. Judge Schulman recommends that Sara get tested for drugs, and Ally assures her, “That’s only to make sure you’re not using cocaine or heroin” — only the test turns out positive, not for cocaine and heroin but for marijuana and PCP (Sara was with friends and family when they passed around a PCP-laced joint and she took a hit, then agreed to the drug test because she didn’t realize, and Ally didn’t tell her, it was for pot as well — indeed marijuana lingers so much longer in the system than harder drugs the standard tests can result in a positive if you’ve used it in the last three weeks, versus a few days for cocaine or heroin), and Keith drops that as yet another bombshell to keep Sara for getting her kids. Sara’s biggest obstacle is her hair-trigger temper (that should be a lesson for me!) that causes her to blow up in court — when she finally admits that she struck her son in anger because he wouldn’t behave, we believe it — and at one point Judge Schulman orders her into anger management classes.

What’s most fascinating about this movie is how it counterpoints the main plot with the family dysfunctions of the characters around them: the gimmick is that just about everyone in the court system charged with making decisions about Sara and whether she’s a fit parent for her kids has their own family problems. Midway through the trial Judge Schulman learns that her (white) husband Elliot (Nicholas Ashe) is having an affair with the wife of a close (but platonic) male friend of Martha’s, and she responds to the news by throwing him out of the house. Later she relents and, on the advice of her father (Roger Robinson), is willing to take him back — but he demands a divorce on the ground that he’s simply tired of the marriage after 17 years. (At one point she accuses him of wanting a white woman instead of her.) Ally spots her uncle Frank (Frank Wood) in the bedroom of her younger sister Emily (Olivia Gilkison-Parrish) reading to her, and she immediately assumes the worst about his intentions — and it turns out it’s because when she was younger Uncle Frank molested her (he didn’t actually penetrate her but he rubbed between her legs, clearly inappropriately) and how she’s worried he’s going to turn his sick attentions to Emily — as well as strangers, since she’s used her authority as an officer of the court to obtain two police reports, over 20 years apart, saying that he’s been caught loitering around schools to look at the kids. Ally tries to report this to her grandmother, Beatrice Fisher (Ellen Burstyn, yet another major name you don’t usually see in a Lifetime movie!), only she’s totally oblivious to the very idea that her beloved son Frank could be a serial pedophile. Even Shawn, the ex-husband who’s in prison, gets involved in the case and demands the right to be heard in court regarding his parental rights over David and Tia (what would he do with them if he got them? Presumably place them with members of his family), and his presence adds one more degree of uncertainty as to whether Sara will ever get her kids back. The movie stretches out over two months — the kids are taken from Sara over Hallowe’en weekend and the film moves through Thanksgiving and finally ends just before Christmas — and at one point Sara takes advantage of the temporary absence of the Black foster mother with whom the state has placed David and Tia (she’s shown as overworked and taking care of four other children at the same time, obviously doing it for the money rather than any commitment to the kids) to kidnap them and take them to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner. Ally intercepts them and gets Sara to return them, but the incident is yet another black mark against her.

Aside from the marvelous irony that all these authority figures are trying to tell Sara how to raise her kids when their own family lives are falling apart (even Ally, the sanest member of the dramatis personae, is caught in bed with a man she’s obviously invited to her home for casual sex; when she’s awakened by her cell phone because she’s getting an emergency call about the case, she turns to him in bed and says, “Are you still here?”), Custody is a good illustration of Abigail Padgett’s comment to me when I interviewed her for Zenger’s Newsmagazine that never, if you can possibly avoid it, allow yourself or your children to be caught up in systems like Child Protective Services (she worked in San Diego’s CPS for years and drew on her experiences for one of her continuing series characters) because the systems have their own priorities, and those aren’t likely to be yours. The systems have their own priorities; the people within them have their own priorities — and sometimes those are screwed up by events in their lives that have nothing to do with the case at hand but often influence how they will perceive and handle it — and even if justice is ever done, it all depends on how you define “justice” and what hoops you’re going to be forced to jump through to obtain it for yourself and those you care about. Custody has been criticized for its plethora of plot lines — though I found that for once a movie or TV show with multiple plot lines used those strands to reinforce each other and add to the dramatic point, not just to confuse people or seem like they’re being “post-modern.” It’s an excellent movie and one which should have got a theatrical release; it also ran 2 ½ hours less commercials, not Lifetime’s standard two hours, which had me worrying that they were going to make it part one of a serial (or, even worse, the pilot for a series — it wasn’t at all clear from the promos Lifetime ran for it whether it was a stand-alone film or a TV series), but no-o-o-o-o, it was a stand-alone TV-movie with a satisfying if a not altogether happy ending, and it was very much worth watching and several cuts above the Lifetime norm.