Sunday, June 24, 2018

Did I Kill My Mother? (Active Entertainment, DARO, Lifetime, 2018)

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

I put on the Lifetime channel for two of their movies, including one advertised as a “premiere” and saddled with the echt-Lifetime title Did I Kill My Mother? Directed by David Bush from a script he wrote with Marcy Holland and Emily Moss Wilaon, Did I Kill My Mother? turned out to be pretty good by Lifetime standards. Significantly lists it as a “mystery” rather than a “thriller,” and it’s a genuinely effective mystery in that Bush, Holland and Wilson give us a sufficiently enigmatic crime and a wide variety of suspects with credible motives, and the ending makes sense and doesn’t give us the sense we sometimes have on this channel of a villainous character being brought in at the end as a diabolis ex machina just to resolve the plot. The plot centers around Natalie Romero (Megan Park, an actress I’ve actually heard of before), who until a year before the main action was a highly motivated high-school senior who’d done well on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and was excited about going to law school and following in the footsteps of her dad, a successful attorney. All that ended when dad was killed, ostensibly in an auto accident — he was a recovering alcoholic who had apparently relapsed after five years of sobriety, crashed his car and died — and Natalie stayed at home with her mother Laura (Alicia Davis Johnson) when she wasn’t hanging out at bars, getting way too drunk for her own good (are we supposed to believe alcoholism is genetic? Actually I think there is some research that indicates it might be) and dating a handsome slimeball named Ethan Jones (Jordan Salloum). Mom and Natalie have arguments about her slacking, her drinking and her lousy taste in men, and one night the conflict between them gets so intense that Natalie announces her intent to move out the next morning. Then she goes out to the local bar, Rudy’s, where one of the bartenders is Natalie’s African-American confidante, Shelby (Karina Willis). Knowing the low life expectancy of the heroine’s sidekicks in Lifetime movies, especially when they’re Black, I feared that Shelby wouldn’t make it to the fadeout. Anyway, Natalie gets drunk — so much so that she abandons her car near Rudy’s and walks home rather than risk either driving herself and having an accident (remember that her father died in a car accident while drunk — or at least that’s what both she and we think!) or accepting a ride home from a stranger at the bar. (There’s a nicely hunky bear type named Lawrence who gets thrown out of the bar while Natalie was there, and I wish we’d got to see more of him than just that one scene.) Anyway, when Natalie gets home she goes upstairs to bed, passes out, then gets up the next morning, goes to the kitchen for something to eat, and finds her mother’s dead body, bludgeoned to death with the usual “blunt instrument.”

Natalie calls the police and they duly arrive in the form of sheriff Nick Jackson (Dane Rhodes, who bears a striking resemblance to Dick Van Patten as he looked on Eight Is Enough) and a uniformed officer, though the case eventually gets assigned to detective Monroe (Austin Highsmith — that’s a woman, by the way), who of course is convinced Natalie did kill her mother. Natalie herself is sure she didn’t even though she was drunk all night and therefore can’t say for sure that she didn’t — which Bush, Holland and Wilson make much less of than previous filmmakers using the “I was so drunk last night I can’t be sure I didn’t commit the murder” (including Roy William Neill in his last film, Black Angel, based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, whose final twist is that the man we’ve been led to believe is the innocently accused suspect did commit the murder, then blacked out all knowledge of it) gimmick — and the suspects include Natalie, Ethan, a true-crime writer named Brody Long (Stephen Colletti) who turns up in town to write his next book on the case and worms his way into Natalie’s confidence even though the working title of his manuscript is A Daughter’s Deception — we suspect him not only because he’s the hottest-looking guy in the film but because his books got lousy reviews on and we start to think he killed someone himself just to get a better-reviewed book out of it — and Sheriff Jackson himself, who seems so solicitous and protective towards Natalie because he was an old friend of her late father’s we end up thinking he must have some ulterior motive. When he first came on the scene he was attempting to console Natalie in her grief even while keeping such a stiff upper lip I couldn’t help but joke that he was a graduate of the Jack Webb School of Playing a Cop Deadpan, but we begin to wonder after a while if Natalie’s dad had uncovered some horrible corruption scandal involving the local police (incidentally the institution is referred to as “Police Department” on the outside of its building but “Jackson County Sheriff’s Department” on a bulletin board inside, a goof Charles spotted before I did, and the dialogue alternately refers to Nick Jackson as a police chief and a sheriff).

It turns out in the final climax that the scandal was that Sheriff/Police Chief Jackson was on the payroll of an organized-crime family called the Marzati Mob, that they used a lake outside of the town to dump the bodies of their murder victims, and that attorney Andrew Romero (Miles Dorleac, whom we don’t see in the prologue but do see in flashbacks, courtesy of video of himself he left on his computer, by which he essentially reaches out from beyond the grave and tells his daughter to go to law school already) caught on and was about to expose him when Sheriff/Chief Jackson killed him, set it up to look like an auto accident and faked a toxicology report that there was alcohol in his system, then redacted the real toxicology report that would have revealed there wasn’t. The big final scene involves Jackson kidnapping Natalie — he’s killed her dad and her mom (bludgeoning her with one of a set of bookends on her mantel — the close-ups of the books reveal Laura Romero to have had eclectic tastes running from Jane Austen to Lee Child — and taking it, then planting it in Natalie’s car to frame her) and now he’s planning to make it a trifecta, only she’s rescued by her friend Shelby and her new friend Brody Long (for once the handsomest man in a Lifetime movie does not turn out to be the villain!), Detective Monroe catches on and confronts Jackson, he gets her gun away from her but in the meantime Natalie picks up his gun and wounds him with it, and Monroe finally arrests her nominal boss and it looks like Natalie is going to have it all: a family inheritance, a hot boyfriend and a career as a lawyer as soon as she graduates from law school. Despite the clinical title, Did I Kill My Mother? is actually one of the better Lifetime movies I’ve seen lately, a reasonably surprising whodunit (I suspected the sheriff early on but I wasn’t sure because the writers were creative enough in spreading the suspicion around among the characters) with a logical resolution — and thankfully Shelby the usually doomed African-American confidante did make it to the fade-out alive and unscathed!