Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Wrong Mother (Cartel Pictures, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2017)

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

After Girl Followed Lifetime aired a much-hyped “premiere” that was considerably better: The Wrong Mother, also known as Deadly Devotion, which once again tapped the “perfect nanny” trope Lifetime has been using at least since Christine Conradt wrote the script for The Perfect Nanny in 2000, thereby launching her career at the network. This one, directed by Craig Goldstein from a script by Missy Cox, begins with Kaylene Larson (Vanessa Marcil) being struck by a car coming up from behind her as she rides outdoors on her bicycle. She survives but she ends up with a bad concussion, and even when the hospital releases her they want her to have home care, so she hires one of the nurses who was taking care of her to be her in-home caregiver. Alas, the in-home caregiver, Vanessa Renzi (Brooke Nevin), puts Kaylene on highly powerful opiates (getting three doctors to split the task of writing all those prescriptions) that leave her sleeping half the day and being totally groggy the rest, to the point where she can’t even read a bedtime story to her children Zoey (Arden Richardson) and Toby (Cooper Dodson) without stumbling over simple words. In case you’re wondering where Kaylene’s husband is in all of this, his name is Drew, he’s played by Stephen Snedden (your typical tall, lanky, sandy-haired type that’s the good guy in a Lifetime movie — he’s considerably less sexy than Joey Lawrence in Girl Followed!) and he works as a commercial airline pilot, so he’s almost never home and that leaves Kaylene at the untender mercies of Vanessa. In what’s become a pretty typical part of the Lifetime formula, we learn that Vanessa has already drawn blood before she enters the main action and that she’s the biological mother of Kaylene’s children: Kaylene had her kids via in vitro fertilization from her husband’s sperm and donated eggs, and Vanessa was her egg donor. Vanessa learned this by seducing a young man in charge of the database at the fertility clinic where she made the donation years before, only in the film’s kinkiest scene, just when he’s expecting her to straddle him and give him the sexual joyride of his young life, she wraps a cloth around his neck and strangles him instead. (Goldstein was obviously following Alfred Hitchcock’s suggestion that murders should be staged like love scenes, and love scenes like murders.)

The reason she did this was so she could find out where her eggs had gone, and learning that the Larsons were the only family who had children from her donated eggs, she sought them out, ran Kaylene down herself (is that really a surprise?), then impersonated a nurse at the hospital where Kaylene was being treated (it’s established that she studied pharmacology in preparation for being a pharmacist but did not have a nursing degree) and used her knowledge of drugs to put Kaylene on so many opiates she’d be helpless to resist as Vanessa put her grand plan into effect. Apparently Vanessa lost it when she found out that her own reproductive organs had gone haywire and therefore she could no longer have any kids of her own, so with the knowledge that the children who had been born from her donated eggs were the only ones she’d ever have, she set out to find them and, once she did, to seduce Drew Larson away from Kaylene and get the kids to accept her as their “real” mom — which in fact she is, at least biologically. The first person who figures Vanessa out is Kaylene’s sister Samantha (Elizabeth Bond), whose role — the person close to Our Heroine who figures out the plot against her but is eliminated before she can warn her — is itself a staple of the Lifetime formula, though Vanessa’s way of eliminating her is rather creative: when Samantha makes the mistake of telling Vanessa she’s deathly allergic to peanuts, Vanessa offs her by lining the steering wheel of her car with peanut oil, which makes her lose consciousness and drive her car off the road into a convenient tree. (One wonders why no one on this community’s police force ever ponders at the “coincidence” of two sisters both being hurt — and one killed — in traffic accidents in the middle of nowhere.) Alas for Vanessa, Kaylene more or less realizes what’s happening to her, and she fights back from the drug-induced fog Vanessa has been keeping her in — and also fights back from an attempt by Vanessa to drown her in the family’s swimming pool (I guess if they could afford in vitro fertilization with donated eggs, they could afford a house with a pool) under the cover of doing physical therapy with her.

The script isn’t all that surprising and Goldstein’s direction (except for that marvelously kinky murder scene) is straightforward and effective but uncreative, but where this movie scores more than most other Lifetime films along the same line is in the marvelous performances by Vanessa Marcil and Brooke Nevin as the female leads. Not only is Nevin appropriately bland and perky in the usual manner of Lifetime villainesses (their woman villains tend to be more interesting and psychologically complex than their male ones!), complete with her smarmy bedside manner — every time Kaylene tries to fight back against Vanessa’s control, Vanessa assumes the guise of caring nurse and smarmily says thinks like, “I wouldn’t do that,” or “I’d advise against that” — she also plays the role in a tightly controlled manner that’s quite different from the florid insanity Lifetime tends to give us in their male psychos. Eventually Vanessa kidnaps Drew, Zoey and Toby — she holds a gun to Drew’s head and forces him to drink a drug-laced concoction (she calls it a “smoothie” but it looked like a pretty ordinary glass of milk to me) — and drives them out to her family’s old home by a lake, where Kaylene tracks them down; she’s able to break the kids out of there but Vanessa knocks out Drew and sets fire to the house, apparently intending a murder-suicide, only Kaylene is able to rescue her husband; they’re cornered by Vanessa and she shoots him, but then before she can finish them off a policewoman ex machina shows up and kills Vanessa instead. The Wrong Mother (not to be confused with The Other Mother or Killer Mom, upcoming movies Lifetime was showing promos for during this one) is a pretty standard Lifetime-formula story, but both the quality of the writing of the two female leads and the vivid performances of Marcil and Nevin bringing them to life makes this one at least somewhat special — the two have real chemistry together and are both totally believable as antagonists.