Sunday, June 11, 2017

Mommy’s Prison Secret, a.k.a. Early Release (Incendo Media/Lifetime, 2017)

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

I switched on Lifetime for my weekly fix of decidedly fictional kinkiness: a TV-movie originally shot under the title Early Release but aired under the ludicrous-sounding Mommy’s Prison Secret. Mommy is Taylor Reynolds (played by the frumpy-looking Kelli Williams, though I don’t know whether she’s just not especially attractive or the filmmakers decided to “frumpicize” her on purpose), who six months before the action of the film begins got out of either a local jail or a state prison (writer Thom Richardson isn’t clear on the point) in Framingham, Massachusetts. She got arrested for driving under the influence, having marijuana in her car (which was actually her husband’s) and mouthing off to the cops who took her in; she was sentenced to three years but was given an early release after serving a year and a half. As the film begins she’s completing her probation, having her last meeting with probation officer Blake Peterson (Conrad Coates, an older, avuncular African-American actor with a resemblance to the current Bill Cosby) and signing the papers that free her from legal supervision at long last. She’s back at home in Springfield, Massachusetts with her husband Jeff (Justin Mader, tall, with a goatee beard and considerably hotter than most guys who play husbands in Lifetime movies) and their daughter Bianca (Niamh Wilson —is that a name or an eye chart?). Only in the year and a half she was “away” dad and daughter were perfectly happy without her, and her reappearance — especially her reappearance ahead of schedule — has caused some family tensions. One day she’s shopping at the local grocery store, “Crisp Market” (I couldn’t help but joke, “Our produce is limp as a wet rag, but our name is crisp!”), when she’s scared out of her wits meeting someone whose appearance — tall, leggy, with blonde hair cut severely in a woman’s version of a mohawk, and wearing skin-tight clothes that flaunt her sexuality — marks her right away as a “bad girl.”

She turns out to be Meghan Flanagan (Sarain Boylan), Taylor’s former cellmate and about the last person on earth Taylor wants to see just then. When Taylor gets to the front of the grocery line she suddenly discovers she’s “lost” her wallet (though later on, after seeing Meghan in action with several other people, we suspect that Meghan actually picked her pocket and stole it) and so she’s got a $60 grocery order and no way to pay for it. The checker, Geraldine (Kate Hurman), is an old acquaintance and would be willing to give Taylor the groceries on credit, but she says if she does so the new day manager, Brian (Don Anderson), will fire her. Meghan whips out her wallet and pays for the groceries, then insists that Taylor take her home since the man she was intending to spend the night with has bailed on her. By chance the night Meghan first shows up at Taylor’s is dark and stormy (stop me if you’ve heard that before), and the combination of the stormy weather and Meghan’s sheer force of will is so overwhelming that she’s able to get Jeff to let her spend the night. Once there, Meghan predictably becomes the Houseguest from Hell, slipping alcohol into Bianca’s soft drink and making passes at Jeff as well as fighting back against Bianca’s scapegrace boyfriend Neil Garland (the genuinely cute Darren Eisnor), including making a pass at him just so she can get close enough to cop his wallet. It seems that Bianca told her folks she was going to be studying with a girlfriend (not that old line!) but was really out on a date with Neil — only he was so desperate to get in her pants he literally stole her cell phone and kept her out for 2 ½ hours, and since she didn’t have her phone she couldn’t return her parents’ increasingly frantic messages — and when mom catches up with them, Meghan is there and fights back by taking a crowbar and smashing the driver’s-side window of Neil’s car. (“It’s my dad’s car!” he whines.) Once Meghan is in the Reynolds’ home she just stays, insisting that she’s not leaving, and she makes herself so much at home she even brings a guy over and they start humping in the Reynolds’ basement. 

Taylor calls the police on Meghan, only Meghan makes a call on her cell phone and the officer that’s dispatched ends up handcuffing Taylor and putting her in the back seat of his car before reluctantly letting her go. Taylor gets the message loud and clear: despite her ex-con status, Meghan has her hooks — financial, sexual or both — into the local cops and so Taylor can’t just call the police on her. Then Meghan makes clear what her real agenda is: it seems that Taylor won her early release by ratting Meghan out to the prison authorities — Meghan had an elaborate scheme to smuggle drugs into prison and make herself and the corrupt guard who was helping her money from selling them. Taylor reported her to Warden Feldman and the two of them successfully busted Meghan — but instead of the extra years on her sentence Taylor thought Meghan would get, they put her in solitary for six months and then let her out, while the gang took out their frustrations by having Warden Feldman killed so a new, more compliant person would get appointed to run the place. Now Meghan wants Taylor to take over as her “mule,” and to that end she has Taylor accept the offer of Lenni Page (Leni Parker), her supervisor at the social-service agency where Taylor works (while Jeff has what he calls his “dream job” at an auto dealership that sells Porsches, even though he laments that they’re paying him far too little to afford one himself), to have her lead a workshop inside the prison. Uncertain where to go, Taylor hits on the idea of telling her old probation officer, Blake Peterson — only it turns out he’s part of Meghan’s operation, which he joined because just as he was getting ready to retire after 30 years on the job, the state legislature cut his pension in half and he decided he needed the money. At this point the story is beginning to look like an updated version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial — with Meghan’s influence so far-reaching Taylor isn’t sure whom she can trust — only the person she finally confides in who isn’t part of her criminal scheme is Lenni. Along with the prison’s new warden, they work out a scheme to entrap Meghan and her confederates by having Taylor enter the prison with drugs, pass them as per plan, only they’ll be monitoring and they’ll nail the corrupt guard as soon as he gets the drugs. 

The plan works and Taylor successfully records Blake’s conversation with her, so they have the evidence they need against him — he catches her recording her on her smartphone but doesn’t realize she has a second recorder on her person that takes down their conversation — but Meghan fulfills the ultimate destiny of every Lifetime villainess who goes after a woman with a kid: she kidnaps the kid and demands $40,000 from Taylor for Bianca’s ransom. Taylor shows up at the rendezvous with a gun and actually shoots Meghan in the shoulder. Meghan’s response is to drive her car into the lake where they’re having the meet so Bianca, who’s in its trunk, will drown. Taylor manages to wade into the lake and pop the trunk open in the nick of time, but Meghan escapes. Assembled by Thom Richardson from a stock of clichés, some of them hoarier than the cast members, and directed pretty much by-the-numbers by John L’Ecuyer, Mommy’s Prison Secret has one saving grace: the brilliant performance by Sarain Boylan as Meghan. So overpowering in her butchness, her charisma and her out-front sexuality (so much so that through much of the movie I thought that Mommy’s prison secret was that she and Meghan had had a Lesbian affair while they were cellmates), Meghan is a “hard” woman and nothing else. She says she’s spent at least 14 of her 38 years on the planet incarcerated in one institution or another, and she divides the world into “us” and “them” — those who are in prison and those who aren’t. It’s also clear she regards “them” as fair game to be used, cheated and manipulated by “us.” Mommy’s Prison Secret could have been a much more interesting movie in a lot of ways — if they’d kept the original title, Early Release, instead of the dorky one they replaced it with; if we’d got more intimations of just how far Taylor had fallen to the “dark side” that she pulled a three-year prison term for what seem like relatively minor misdemeanor alcohol and drug offenses; if we’d got a Christine Conradt-like backstory on what happened to Meghan to get her that way (though arguably the movie is more powerful without one — if Meghan is just a wicked force of nature we awe and fear and don’t really “understand”); if the boyfriend Neil had turned out to be a good guy after all and come back into the action to help the Reynoldses — but as it is it’s a really powerful piece whenever Sarain Boylan is front and center, waving her tits at the camera and giving it, us and the other actors full-bore “attitude,” proudly and unashamedly doing just about everything she thinks she needs to do to survive, no matter how scummy and evil it would seem to the rest of us.