Sunday, March 19, 2017

Mommy’s Little Boy (NB Thrilling Films, Reel One Films, Lifetime, 2017)

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

Last night Lifetime showed two “premiere” movies from 8 p.m. to midnight (or shortly thereafter) under the rubric “Mommy Madness,” of which the first was Mommy’s Little Boy, a clear follow-up to the 2016 production they had re-run just before it, Mommy’s Little Girl. Created by the same people — Lifetime’s ace writer, Christine Conradt (she had help from Mark Sanderson on the script for Mommy’s Little Girl but wrote Mommy’s Little Boy solo), and her frequent directorial collaborator, Curtis James Crawford, Mommy’s Little Boy wasn’t a ripoff of The Bad Seed the way Mommy’s Little Girl was. It was promoted on the Lifetime Web site by a 29-second trailer that showed Mommy’s little boy, Eric Wilson (Peter DaCunha), out with her in the dead of night helping her bury a tarp-wrapped body, which made it looked like mommy Briana Wilson (Bree Williamson, an oddly similar name to her character!) was knocking people off and enlisting sonny-boy’s help as an accessory after the fact. The truth, when we finally get to see the movie start to finish, is more complex and more morally ambiguous than that — moral ambiguity is the biggest thing that separates Conradt’s scripts, as insanely melodramatic as some of them (including Mommy’s Little Boy) get, from those by the rest of Lifetime’s writers.

When we first meet Eric he’s being all too blatantly bullied by his older half-brother Max (Auden Larratt) — the two have different fathers and both men disappeared from Briana’s life without so much as a by-your-leave, though one of them left her a nice house which she can still afford to live in because of some sort of legal settlement she got that enables her not to work. What she does do with her time is drink — sometimes at sleazy bars, in one of which she meets a boyfriend de jour named Shane Reed (Sebastian Pigott) who figures prominently in the later action, but mostly at home, straight from a bottle of liquor which, since the fluid is clear, we assume is either vodka or gin. During one afternoon she’s lying next to their backyard swimming pool, laying in a chaise longue, listening to music via ear buds and doing the best she can to drown out the sounds of her sons as they horseplay in the pool. Somehow Max falls to the bottom of the pool, a wound opens up and he dies — director Crawford keeps it uncertain whether Eric deliberately killed him, whether he was fighting back against Max’s bullying and just pushed too hard, or Max had an accident and Eric’s only culpability was that he didn’t bother to tell mom until it was too late because he knew he would be better off with his brother dead than alive. Nonetheless, mom convinces Eric that he’s a murderer and he’s going to have to do exactly what she says or else he’s going to end up in prison. The Wilsons have a nosy neighbor who lives across the street, Barbara Nolan (Brigitte Robinson), who notices that the Wilson boys aren’t eating especially well — since one of the things their mom is too hors de combat from all that drinking to do for them is make meals — so she brings over some sort of taco pie (I think that’s how the dish was described in the dialogue) and mom overreacts hysterically to the idea that she needs some interloper to help her feed her kids. So she clongs Barbara on the head with a frying pan, knocking her unconscious and leaving Eric alone with the body. Eric notices that Barbara is still alive and is about to reach for the phone to call 911 when mom comes back into the room. Eric tells her, “She’s not dead,” and mom’s response is to grab that frying pan and keep hitting Barbara over the head with it until she really is most sincerely dead.

Then mom concocts the plot for concealing her crime into which she enlists Eric and which involves the scene we saw in the trailer: mom buries Barbara’s body in the local Kern Campgrounds (the film supposedly takes place in Philadelphia but the settings look more suburban to me) and abandons Barbara’s car and purse, hoping that either or both will get stolen, the police will find them and, if Barbara’s body is ever discovered, the cops will blame her murder on whoever stole her car and/or purse. Only it doesn’t work that way because nobody goes near the car, and when she isn’t doing bouncy-bouncy with Shane or getting plastered, she’s noting the news reports as the cops find first the car and then Barbara herself. Meanwhile, Eric has managed to escape from mom’s bizarre clutches into one of the local parks, where he runs into a girl his age named Kaylee Davis (Jadyn Malone) and her parents, local schoolteacher and coach Michael Davis (Paul Popowich, one of those rare males in a Lifetime movie who’s both hot and sexy and actually gets to play a good guy!) and his wife Sherry (Natalie Lisinska). We immediately get the impression that the Davises would make far better parents for Eric than his mother would, not only because there are two of them but because they’re strong, loving, supportive and have better things to do with their lives than drink themselves into oblivion. Michael recruits Eric to try out for the school’s baseball team, at which he sucks and gets teased by the other kids (one of whom even has the gall to tell him that the wrong Wilson brother died), and he tries to help Eric as much as possible without arousing suspicion as to his own motives. Meanwhile, as mother Briana’s crude attempt to cover up her crime starts to unravel, she hatches a plot to get herself, Shane and Eric out of the country and over to Mexico in Shane’s elaborate RV, which he’s so emotionally committed to it’s clear the vehicle, not any human, is the great love of his life. Eric doesn’t want to leave and Shane wants it to be just him and Briana without that obnoxious kid of hers anyway, but mom insists that the two are a “package deal.” Alas, Shane is so protective of his RV that when he finds out that Eric has been going through his possessions and discovered first his porn collection and then his gun, he threatens to beat Eric to within an inch of his life with his belt — and Eric panics and shoots Shane.

When mom realizes that they’ve got another corpse on their hands she’s even more anxious to get out of the country — though somewhere along the line it peeks through even her alcohol-soaked mind that Canada would be a closer and more feasible place to run to than Mexico — and in the meantime Michael has alerted child protective services to Eric’s plight at home and the Philadelphia police have assigned a woman detective, Jan Myers (Allison Graham), to the case. Mom left her cell phone behind when she abandoned her car and went with Shane in his RV, but Eric has his own phone and uses it to call Michael, who tells him to keep the line open so the police can trace them. Director Crawford and editor Jordan Jensen create effective suspense as it becomes a race of time — can the cops stop the runaway RV and its mother-and-son fugitive occupants before mom discovers her son is alerting them on his cell phone and beats the shit out of him, or worse? When Michael and detective Myers finally corner them, Briana comes out of the RV holding Eric at gunpoint, hoping to use him as a hostage, only he manages to get away and Briana refuses Myers’ command to drop her gun and essentially commits “suicide by cop.” As melodramatic as it sometimes is, and as clear that Conradt has been doing these for so long (her first Lifetime script, The Perfect Nanny, was made in 2000) she’s got the clichés down pat and knows what her audiences expect, she also manages to make her characters believable as flesh-and-blood people with flaws as well as good points. We basically like and root for Eric but he does leave his brother in the pool to die, and later he shoots someone whose only crime was wanting to discipline him; and Briana comes off as a figure of real pathos even though we generally loathe her; we basically like the nosy neighbor Briana offs early on but could see how her constant butting in to the Wilsons’ lives could become a real trial; and Shane comes off as a no-account pleasure-seeker but also a proud and independent man who’s just in over his head with this woman and her troubled son. The Davis family are the only members of the dramatis personae of Mommy’s Little Boy who really are too good to be true; otherwise the characterizations are intriguing and make this something more than just your standard-issue Lifetime movie with a provocative title and premise.