Monday, March 19, 2018

The Midwife's Deception (Distilled Media/Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on Lifetime’s latest “premiere,” a film called The Midwife’s Deception which sounds, like the recent Bad Tutor, like the Lifetime producers, directors and writers are running out of seemingly “perfect” service jobs whose holders have psycho designs on their employers. This time the script was written and directed by the same person, Letia Clouston (yet another talented woman filmmaker who deserves opportunities at bigger outlets than Lifetime and this film’s production company, Distilled Media — as opposed to Tap Media or Spring Media?), and though she ran through a lot of the usual items on the checklist for Lifetime scripts (psycho, innocent victim, innocent victim’s decent but clueless spouse, and innocent victim’s best friend who tries to expose the psycho and gets knocked off for her pains), she turned in a better job than usual at both writing and direction. I think what makes this a better movie than the Lifetime norm (though not by all that much) is that Clouston, like Christine Conradt, is willing to make her characters complex and also keep a lot of the backstory unstated instead of throwing everything at us. The central characters are Daniel Miller (Billy Armstrong, a hot-looking guy who for once on a Lifetime movie is not a villain) and his very visibly pregnant wife Sara (Katie Savoy, who looks so convincing as a woman in the later stages of pregnancy I wondered if Clouston had cast an actress who actually was pregnant for the role). The Millers have just moved from Los Angeles, where she had worked as an attorney until taking time off to have her baby and spend the first year or two of her (they know it’s going to be a her and they’ve named her Eloise) life bonding with her, to the small town in Kentucky where he grew up.

One of the gimmicks in Clouston’s script is that there are a lot of nubile young women who remember Daniel as the big hottie from high school and still have crushes on him — which understandably makes Sara feel jealous, even though the woman who actually was Daniel’s high-school girlfriend, Allie (Katie McClellan, who’s shorter than Katie Savoy but also has long black hair and a similar face — one wonders if this is Daniel’s “type”), becomes her best friend in town. Eventually we learn that Sara has been through two previous pregnancies but miscarried both of them, and she’s understandably anxious about this one and making sure she makes it and actually gives birth to a live baby. Enter the bad girl, Jina (Penelope Mitchell), who runs into Sara at a local café (which has the odd name “Shakespeare and Company” — I remember that as the name of a famous bookstore in Berkeley, back when there still were bookstores!) whose proprietor is yet another woman who knew Daniel back in high school and had the hots for him. Jina introduces herself as a certified nurse-midwife and offers to take charge of Sara during her pregnancy and help her through a home birth, despite the misgivings of Sara’s pediatrician, Dr. Collins (played by Matt Clouston, real-life husband of the writer-director — who seems to have named the central couple “Miller” after her own maiden name). One point Clouston’s script makes is how much life in small towns really is based on everyone knowing everyone else: Jina takes Sara to a meeting of mothers-to-be at the restaurant and Sara shows how much of a fish out of water she is by bringing a salad made from quinoa and kale. Of course no one else at the event has ever heard of quinoa! Though Sara is determined to avoid alcohol and caffeine during her pregnancy, Jina sneaks out her smartphone and uses it to take pictures of Sara with the forbidden drinks close to her mouth. Sara demands that Jina not post these to social media — she has a phobia about having any pictures of herself online, which Clouston keeps powerfully unexplained the way the writers of Casablanca carefully kept us in the dark as to just what Bogart’s character had done that prevented him from returning to the U.S.

Jina shows us she’s up to no good well before the other characters learn that; we see her in her grey SUV stalking the Millers at night, and later she gives them an elaborate candlestick for their bedroom with a red mug on top of it “to warm you up at night,” but the objet d’art is carefully bugged, with a hidden camera that allows Jina to log on from home and eavesdrop on the goings-on in the Millers’ bedroom. The biggest thing that happens in the Millers’ bedroom that we get to see is a nice Lifetime-style soft-core porn scene in which Daniel attempts to have sex with his wife, but the baby-to-be in her belly just keeps getting in the way. (Lifetime used to do a lot more soft-core porn than their norm now, and I miss it.) It’s only two-thirds of the way through the movie that we finally learn Jina’s true motive: she wants to kill both Daniel and Sara and take their baby for herself. They’re currently living in the house formerly occupied by Daniel’s mother until her recent death, and the house has uncomfortable Rebecca-esque memories; her plan is to burn down the house with an incapacitated Daniel and Sara inside, frame it to look like a murder-suicide in which Sara’s fetus died as well as both parents, and take the baby and raise it since no authorities will know the kid still exists. About the only explanation Clouston gives us as to why she’s doing this is a speech she gives towards the end in which she says she wants the girl to grow up with a proper appreciation of how tough the world really is instead of being sheltered by the Millers from the nastier realities of life. Along the way Jina posts her pics of Sara apparently drinking on social media — which leads to the rest of the women in town snubbing her as a hypocrite — and when Allie gets too close to the truth, Jina kills her, first drugging her and then smothering her with a large horseshoe-shaped cushion — after which she buries Allie on Daniel’s and Sara’s property, thereby (she hopes) framing Sara for her murder. She also steals Allie’s cell phone and continues to text Sara regularly in Allie’s persona, so when Sara finally stumbles onto the truth about Jina — her real name is Leslie Ann Phelps and under that identity she has a social-media page boasting about the imminent birth of “her” baby — instead of alerting a friend she’s tipping off Jina that she knows.

The climax takes place at the Millers’ home, which Jina sets on fire with a drugged Sara, who’s also starting to have contractions indicating the birth is imminent, inside. Daniel comes home but Jina quickly overpowers him, clubbing him into unconsciousness with a baseball bat, and there’s a big to-do about a gun Daniel’s mother left him which is locked in a safe somewhere in the house — but can Daniel get to it before Jina does? Jina guesses that the Millers have set Sara’s birthday as the combination to the safe, but it’s actually Daniel’s and Sara’s wedding date — and with that information Sara is able to retrieve the gun and shoot Jina to death just before Jina is about to dispatch her husband. (Letia Clouston quite literally took Chekhov’s advice to budding playwrights that if you introduce a pistol in act one, someone has to fire it in act three.) The Midwife’s Deception is well done, and Clouston’s powerful suspense direction and use of dramatic ambiguity in her script sets this one ahead of most Lifetime movies even though all too much of it is based on the network’s usual formulae; and given Lifetime’s recent penchant for endings in which the principal villain escapes to wreak his or her havoc on some other unsuspecting person in another city, it was nice to see Clouston end this one with a shot of Jina at the window of the burning house (an obvious quote from Alfred Hitchcock’s shot of Judith Anderson at the end of Rebecca), about to go out in flames with it. She even avoided the expected everything-is-back-to-normal coda of the Millers in the hospital with their brand-new baby girl! The Midwife’s Deception is a formula piece, but a quite good one within the formula’s limits, and I look forward to seeing more for Letia Clouston — she goes on my list along with Christine Conradt and Vanessa Parise of women directors on Lifetime who’ve clearly “made their bones” and shown they’re ready for feature films.