Monday, June 19, 2017

The Good Nanny (MarVista Entertainment, Fast Archer Films, Lifetime, 2017)

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

Actually, Girlfriend Killer looked like a masterpiece compared to the truly weird movie Lifetime showed immediately after it, The Good Nanny, which seemed like a deliberate attempt by writer-director Jake Helgren to reverse the formula originated by Christine Conradt in her first Lifetime script, The Perfect Nanny (2000). Whereas that one, the first in Conradt’s long line of “Perfect _____” scripts, had given us a basically decent suburban family set upon by a seemingly perfect but actually psycho woman they hire as a nanny, Helgren’s script gave us a woman who isn’t even a professional nanny — she’s an interior designer, Summer Pratt (Lifetime veteran Briana Evigan), who’s been hired to decorate the home of Travis and Lily Walsh (Peter Porte and Ellen Hollman) and ends up agreeing to look after their rather squirrelly daughter Sophie (Sophie Gurst). Summer is at liberty to do this because her own fiancé, Hefner (David Tillman), is out of town because he’s just been hired to do lobbying for the company Travis and Lily Walsh own — and though they Skype each other regularly she’s getting restive as his absence gets longer and longer. Summer’s other big problem is that she has a medical condition that makes it difficult to conceive, and since she wants children more than just about anything else in the world that bothers her probably more than it should. (I’ve known many straight people of both sexes who would have loved to be able to have sex with each other without having to bother with either the risk of pregnancy or the affirmative steps needed to avoid it.) When she starts filling in as Travis’s and Lily’s nanny, Summer has a hard time getting through to Sophie because she literally doesn’t speak — our first intimation that she even can speak is when Summer hears Sophie talking to an apparently imaginary friend named “Sasha,” and though both the voices are Sophie’s they carry out an audible conversation in which Summer can hear both Sophie and “Sasha” exchanging misgivings about how the new nanny doesn’t like them any better than the last one did. Helgren shows a certain flair for the Gothic, though his effects with low-keyed lighting, offbeat camera angles and doomy music seem to be playing against his relatively straightforward story and he takes his own sweet time explaining to us just what’s wrong with this picture — why Sophie seems so alienated from her parents, why they seem to regard her as a burden and Travis in particular makes it pretty clear he doesn’t want her around at all.

Eventually, with the help of her friend, African-American pediatrician Dr. Monica Thorne (Tatyana Ali, the only cast member here I can remember seeing, or even hearing of, ouside the corridors of Lifetime) — the usual Lifetime Black person whose plot function is to serve as the voice of reason and try to steer the white characters away from all the stupid things they have to do for this, or any other Lifetime movie, to have a plot at all — Summer finally catches on that “Sasha” and Sophie are actually the same person. Her real name is Sasha Carter and she’s the daughter, not of Lily, but of her scapegrace sister Tara (a nicely slatternly bad-girl performance by Kym Jackson), who’s been a fugitive from justice ever since she stabbed her abusive husband (the father of Sophie a.k.a. Sasha) to death. Unfortunately Summer’s efforts to trace Tara succeed all too well; after risking her job in a restaurant kitchen by taking Summer’s call at work, Tara determines to crash Travis’s and Lily’s lavish Southern California home and steal back her daughter. Lily, it seems, took Sasha in the first place because she visited her sister and found the girl being neglected, but her interest in parenting beyond just providing food, clothing and shelter was virtually nil — and when Tara shows up to retrieve her daughter she’s carrying a gun. She uses a kitchen knife to stab Travis to death, intending that Lily will be blamed for this and Tara won’t be suspected, and all this leads to a final big confrontation on a beach (this is southern California, after all) in which Tara kidnaps Sasha, Summer and Lily get Sasha a.k.a. Sophie away from her, Tara shoots down her sister Lily and then demands that Summer give Sasha back to her, and Summer approaches Tara, seemingly about to return her daughter, only she has a knife on her and uses it to stab Tara and save the girl from her mom’s clutches. The Good Nanny is an annoying movie — the ending is powerful, if unusually melodramatic even for Lifetime (and where, oh where, is official law enforcement? In Lifetime’s earlier days it was actually fairly frequent for their movies to end in a free-lance bloodbath, but more recently there’s generally been some police involvement in the denouement even though it remains more common for Lifetime’s villains to be killed than to be arrested at the end), but it’s been a long, hard slog to get there.

There are some neat touches to The Good Nanny, including one in which Travis is getting out of his swimming pool (and yes, the sight of Peter Porte’s great bod clad only in swim trunks is an aesthetic delight!), sees Summer and invites her to join him — “I’m sure Lily has an extra bikini … if you feel you really need one,” he says — and later Summer tells Lily about her concerns about Sophie and the way she’s growing up, mentions her encounter with Travis as an aside, and all Lily cares about is, “You mean Travis came on to you?” There’s also a preposterous ending in which, with just about every other adult in her life dead, Sophie a.k.a. Sasha ends up with, you guessed it, Summer and her boyfriend, who’ve given themselves the challenge of raising her and trying to get her to be a normal kid after all she’s gone through. But Helgren also supplies one of the most blatant “cheat” sequences in Lifetime history — as often in Lifetime movies, we first get an opening “teaser” scene and then a flashback to the main body of the film, but in this one the “teaser” turns out merely to be one of Summer’s dreams which express her anguish at not being able to have a child of her own. If there’s a worthwhile element in The Good Nanny, it’s the fascinating performance of Ellen Hollman as Lily; she begins the story as a virtual Stepford wife, amazingly and almost annoyingly chipper, but as the story progresses and we see how sick all the adults in it are except for Summer and Dr. Thorne, Hollman’s acting rises to the challenge of the character and we realize that she and Tara are nowhere nearly as different as we thought when Tara first came onto the action (though by a glitch in the casting Kym Jackson looks more like Briana Evigan than like Ellen Hollman, and so we’d more likely believe that Tara and Summer were sisters than Tara and Lily!). Other than that, though, The Good Nanny is a pretty dreary and draining Lifetime non-epic whose attempts to “spin” fresh variations on the basic Lifetime formulae only come off as desperate and draggy.