Monday, May 8, 2017

Running Away (Run Run Media, Daro Film Distributors, Lifetime, 2017)

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

Lifetime’s second prime-time (10 p.m. to midnight) movie last Saturday, May 6, Running Away, had definite points of similarity to the one they showed just before it, Deadly Sorority, including the young damsel in distress and the nerdy young guy with glasses and superior computer hacking skills who comes along to help save her and ends up romantically paired with her at the end, but as has often happened with this network when they do the back-to-back movies on Saturday nights the second film turned out to be considerably more interesting and richer as a work of art (or artifice) than the first. Running Away tells the story of Peg (Paula Trickey) and her two teenage daughters, Maggie (Holly Deveaux, top-billed) and Lizzie (Madison Lee Brown). Peg lived with the girls’ father but they never formally got married — they talked about doing so but dad ultimately died before they could — and for the last three years the three women have lived alone, with Maggie raising her daughters as a single parent and falling farther behind financially until at the start of this movie she’s frantically fielding collection calls from her bank (or whatever mortgage servicer owns her mortgage now — one of the principal causes of the housing crisis that nearly wrecked the entire U.S. economy in 2008 was the selling and reselling and re-reselling of home mortgages in ever-larger “packages” to the point where it often wasn’t clear just who owned them and who was responsible for seeing that the borrowers paid up). We see her end of one of these and the treatment she’s getting from the unseen, unheard caller is so rough that at first I thought she was being blackmailed. Peg is also dating a well-off pawn-shop owner, Richard Bannister (William McNamara), who’s depicted as incredibly overbearing and possessive. Richard proposes to Peg, thereby shocking the hell out of Maggie, who doesn’t like the man and isn’t looking forward to having him as a stepfather, especially since he insists that when he and Peg tie the knot they’re going to live in his place (albeit one that’s considerably more elaborate than the one Peg is about to lose to foreclosure) and she’s going to have to abide by his rules. She’s also going to have to do her final year of high school at a new school run by a woman principal whose idea of disciplining the students might have been regarded by a Marine drill sergeant as excessive. Maggie gets assigned a student “peer counselor” named Chip ( lists Louie Enriquez as the actor playing him but he doesn’t look especially Latino — just your standard-issue nerdy white kid with Buddy Holly-style glasses) and then gets suspended from school for three days when she tries to keep him from being bullied and hits one of the bullies who’s harassing him.

Maggie is also a pile of work herself: she’s sneaking into her mom’s and stepdad’s supplies of booze (she mixes beer, wine and Scotch and predictably gets sick from the combination) and she’s telling her mom she’s going to the community swimming pool when she’s really going to the lake where she meets her boyfriend (though she breaks up with him early on in the action). We also get to see Richard on the end of some phone calls with unseen callers that drop us a hint that he’s something more than just an overbearing stepfather who owns a pawn shop — we’re given the idea that he’s really making his money from some illegal enterprise, and it turns out he’s using his pawn shop to launder money for a drug cartel. Richard also has been casting lascivious eyes on Maggie all movie, and when he catches her going through an entire six-pack in one afternoon he tells her, “I’ll keep your secrets if you keep mine.” He then offers her a glass of Scotch — we can see he’s drugged it — and the next thing Maggie knows she’s being raped by her stepfather in one of those stupefied date-rape states in which she’s aware of what’s going on but too intoxicated to do anything to stop it. He then repeatedly demands sex from her or else he’ll tell her mom she’s drinking and cutting up with boys, and her solution at first is simply to wait it out until she turns 18 in a few months, but later she decides she can’t take it anymore and will run away. She’s also discovered that Richard has wired the entire house with surveillance equipment with which he can spy on everyone in the house and grounds from his home office, and the footage includes video of Richard raping her — which she downloads courtesy of her friend Chip, who of course being a nerdy guy with glasses in a Lifetime movie has excellent hacking skills. She saves it to a flash drive, only Richard realizes his system has been compromised and in one of the film’s silliest scenes tries to kick his own computer into oblivion — only Maggie and Chip steal his hard drive and hold it, eventually turning it over to the local police.

Maggie flees to a nearby town and keeps her cell phone off so it can’t be used to track her, only when she’s on her way there she’s accosted on a bus by a young man named Charlie (Kale Clauson) with dirty-blond hair and the sort of manner that at first led me to believe he was going to seduce her, then pimp her out and traffic her. Maggie moves in with Charlie, who isn’t a pimp but is a dealer in drugs and guns who has a live-in girlfriend who’s also into drugs, and in one chilling scene she goes tearing out of the house on a drug run and leaves Maggie stuck with the burden of caring for her son. One of Charlie’s customers is C. J. (Aaron Lee, by far the hottest guy in this film), who also works at a local tavern and talks the owner into giving Maggie a waitressing job there even though she has no I.D. To get one, she asks Charlie to set her up with one of his friends — only just when she’s about to hand over the money (which she’d stolen from a fund her sister Lizzie — ya remember her sister Lizzie? — had been saving up from her income as a baby-sitter for a school field trip to Mexico), Charlie’s place is raided by two men in ski masks demanding the guns Charlie was supposed to sell them. It turns out that one of the men is Maggie’s stepfather, Richard Bannister, and it’s touch-and-go as to whether Maggie will be able to get away or Richard and his co-conspirator will knock her off, but eventually she does, she and Chip turn over Richard’s hard drive to the local police — who at first couldn’t be less interested in it until they realize that Maggie’s stepfather is also the notorious local crook they’ve been looking for evidence against for some time now, and the two kids have just walked the evidence against him into their office waiting for their computer technicians to recover the data off the damaged but not destroyed hard drive. It all ends happily, of course, with Bannister arrested, the three women back together as a family (and inheritors of at least the legitimately earned parts of Bannister’s fortune), and Maggie presumably sobering up and in the scrawny but not entirely unappealing arms of her hacker friend Chip.

Running Away is burdened by a script by Sheri McGuinn that has its lapses into the usual sillinesses, but it also is excellently directed by Brian Skiba,who has a real flair for making suspense and action scenes exciting while still keeping them believable. It also helps that casting associate Betsy Hume has assembled three leading actresses who look enough alike they’re credible as a mother and her two daughters — one of my common bones to pick about movies is when their directors and casting people ask us to accept people who don’t look at all alike as genetic relatives — but what really makes this movie special and sets it well above the Lifetime norm is McGuinn’s writing of the character of Maggie and Holly Deveaux’ brilliant portrayal of her. Maggie is one of the most complex and multidimensional characters I’ve seen in a Lifetime movie (especially one Christine Conradt didn’t write), dark, brooding, sullen, resigned but also showing hints of a powerful, potentially strong and independent woman underneath all that once she starts fighting back against the forces oppressing her instead of just giving in to them and drinking herself into near-oblivion. The highlights of her performance are director Skiba’s and cinematographer Patrice Lucien Cochet’s haunting close-ups of her wearing an odd sort of lipstick that makes her lips look red on top and almost black beneath — itself a reflection of the duality of her nature and the extent to which she’s torn between a sullen acceptance of her fate and an energetic struggle against it. Though burdened by a few of Lifetime’s typical plot contrivances, Running Away is a surprisingly impressive piece of work, and as dumb as parts of McGuinn’s script are she scores with her intelligent use of telephone conversations to drop us hints about what’s going on without spelling it out for us or making it too obvious.