Monday, May 7, 2018

The Wrong Daughter, a.k.a. Love Me or Else (Cartel Pictures, Love Me Project, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” movie was called The Wrong Daughter, though it was shot under the working title Love Me or Else (which actually would have been better — less clinical, though also less obvious to the Lifetime audience), and it started in a group home where “bad girl” Samantha Brown (Sydney Sweeney in one of those appealingly perky young-psycho performances that abound on Lifetime movies) is rooming with “good girl” Danica Tyrell (Sierra Pond). The group home’s manager, Ms. Hanson (April Bowlby, a name I remember from previous Lifetime productions), throws Samantha out, not only because she’s a troublemaker — earlier Danica has called her the “worst roommate ever” — but she’s 18 and she’s aged out of the foster-care system, where both she and Danica have spent virtually all their lives because their mothers gave them up at birth and they were never adopted. Danica was the product of a 16-year-old girl’s relationship with a kid from a minister’s family whose church moved him out of town as soon as he knocked up Danica’s mom; she gave up her daughter at birth and went on to a respectable life as Kate Whitman (Cindy Busby), wife of Joseph Whitman (Jon Prescott, a surprisingly attractive man for a husband in a Lifetime movie that isn’t trying for sinister reasons to kill his wife) and business partner of Melissa Reed (Kelsey Griswold). The two women are about to open a restaurant called the Kettle Black Bistro (as in “the pot calling the kettle black”), which from the pictures we see of the exterior looks like it’s in such a remote place it’s hard to believe it’s going to draw any business.

Samantha steals both Danica’s identity and her laptop and uses them to show up at Kate’s and Joseph’s and present herself as Kate’s long-lost daughter, even though it’s also established that she’s a psych patient who threw out all her meds on her way out of the group home. At first Kate is overjoyed to see “Danica,” especially since she just lost the baby she and Joseph had conceived to a miscarriage (another Lifetime miscarriage? This one is at least easier to understand because if she’s old enough to have a teenage daughter Kate is probably nearing the end of her reproductive years anyway), but then “Danica” starts acting very needy and getting jealous every time the impending restaurant opening takes Kate’s attention away from her. “Danica” also gets jealous of the garden Kate and Melissa planted together in Kate’s backyard and she goes into it one night and rips it to shreds the night before the Whitmans are supposed to be hosting a big barbecue to celebrate the return of Kate’s daughter. She’s filmed in the act by Ivan (Jesse Pepe), who may or may not be Melissa’s teenage son (the writers, Carlee Malemute and Jesenia Ruiz, weren’t too clear about their relationship), who lives next door and was the one who first alerted the Whitmans to the existence of the real Danica’s Web page on which she was searching for her long-lost mother. Ivan e-mails the video to Melissa but, when Samantha visits him as “Danica,” she persuades him to delete it and manages with her own hacker skills to erase the copy Melissa sent the Whitmans as well — and when Ivan seems like he’s going to keep the tape and get it to the Whitmans himself, Samantha a.k.a. “Danica” pushes him down the staircase between the two levels of his home, killing him. (This was a bit of a disappointment because I was hoping Samantha would seduce him as an excuse to pick his pocket and steal his smartphone, on which the incriminating video was shot — if only because a soft-core porn scene between Sydney Sweeney and Jesse Pepe would have been nice.) Meanwhile, the real Danica receives a message from Melissa apologizing for the way she treated the fake “Danica,” and of course the real one has no idea who Melissa Reed is — but she quickly figures it out and reports to the police that someone she used to room with at her group home is impersonating her and putting the Whitmans in potentially mortal danger.

The climax occurs at a mountain cabin that’s Kate Whitman’s secret retreat — and Malemute (this movie was co-written by an Alaskan dog?) and Ruiz take pains to let us know that the Internet and smartphone connections at this location are “spotty” and intermittent — where Samantha kills a local police officer who shows up to investigate and steals his truck. The presence of a dead police officer on their front doorstep finally alerts the Whitmans to the mortal danger facing them, and it ends with the cops — led by Detective Stevenson (Owen Saxon, easily the hottest guy in a movie quite full of appealing beefcake; he looks like a young George Clooney and I’m hoping he’ll start getting the romantic, sexy roles Clooney is aging out of) — arresting Samantha and the real Danica reuniting with her mother at long last. Of course, there’s a postlude showing Samantha in a mental institution — not surprisingly, she’s been ruled non compos mentis even though we’ve seen her commit two murders — holding a knife she’s made of a hair brush and seemingly about to use it on Dr. Hopewell (Lisa Canning), the tall, sympathetic African-American who’s trying to take care of her and help her return to sanity. (The page on this film lists this character as “Nurse Hopewell,” but I distinctly heard her being addressed as “Doctor” in the dialogue.) The Wrong Daughter is pretty much a to-the-numbers Lifetime-formula movie, with such familiar Lifetime names as Tom Berry and David DeCrane listed among the plethora of producers, though like a lot of these productions it gains a lot from the formidable acting of Sydney Sweeney in the lead. A lot of Lifetime movies have featured these girl psychos, perky on the outside and demented on the inside, but while a lot of actresses have played these bad-girl roles few have done so with the crack-brained conviction of Sweeney — even though the script of this film did not give her any sex scenes and thus a key element of this sort of character is missing. At least Malemute and Ruiz did not, as their Lifetime colleagues did in at least one previous missing-daughter movie, have the (step)father be in on the plot and be hot to trot for Samantha himself!