Monday, July 9, 2018

Murdered at 17 (N.B. Thrillling Films, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” was of a film called Murdered at 17, co-written by Christine Conradt (she came up with the “original” story in collaboration with Gemma Holdway and Cyndi Pass, but wrote the actual script solo) and directed by her frequent collaborator Curtis Crawford. Alas, though Murdered at 17 had its points it wasn’t anywhere nearly as good as Lifetime’s previous “premiere” Killer Single Dad, which I’d watched the night before on its second go-round and which, though not written by Conradt, had more of the multidimensional characterizations (especially of the villain) she’s known for than her script for Murdered at 17. I was also struck by the irony that this was the second Lifetime “premiere” in a row in which the bad guy was named Jake; here he’s Jake Campali (Blake Burt), who grew up in a hellish family with a crazy disciplinarian father who abused him physically and psychologically (though not sexually) and denied him the money to go to college. Jake managed to learn enough computer skills, despite the lack of college, that at age 17 he wrote a killer app he was able to sell to a major company and get enough to live on for the rest of his life — and he spent the money much the way you’d expect a young straight boy in his late teens to on a palatial home, a nice car (a black Mercedes-Benz sports model that virtually becomes a character in the film) and a lot of outings to strip clubs. All that changes — well, at least the strip clubs part does — when he meets 17-year-old high-school student Brooke Emerson (Cristine Prosperi) and immediately decides she’s the girl of his dreams, the one predestined to share his life (and his fortune).

Murdered at 17 begins with one of its most powerful scenes: a blonde woman comes to visit Jake and tells him she’s his sister Francine (Allison Graham) and their father Mike (Rick Amsbury) is dying of cancer and needs money for his health care bills. Jake makes it clear to her that as far as he’s concerned, the sooner their dad croaks the better he’ll like it, and he vividly narrates his tales of childhood abuse to explain why he can’t wait for his dad to die. Alas, we really don’t get much more of a sense of “what makes Jake run” than this, and Conradt, Crawford and their collaborators soon cut to the romantic politics at Brooke’s high school. Brooke’s friend Maddie Finley (Emily Galley) is upset with Brooke because Maddie’s ex-boyfriend Tryg Bailey (Mike Stechyson) sent Brooke a text reading, “Hi, gorgeous!” Just why Maddie should be so upset that a guy she’s already dumped should be sending romantic texts to her friend is a bit of a mystery, but it soon developed that Tryg has long had the hots for Brooke and Maddie never amounted to any more than “sloppy seconds” for him. Alas for Tryg, Brooke has also attracted the attentions of Jake, and compared to a hot young blond with a baby face, a multi-million dollar fortune and a fancy car, Tryg is definitely out of his league in the competition. Jake takes Brooke on a series of dates and keeps her out for long periods that unnerve her mom Carley (Susan Emerson, top-billed), though mom feels a good deal better about Jake as her daughter’s boyfriend once she has him over for dinner and he turns on the charm for her and Brooke’s stepfather. At one of their dinner dates Jake and Brooke go to a fancy restaurant named Wally’s (which the friend I was watching this movie with thought sounded more like the name of a diner, and whose interior was convincing but the exterior was represented by one of Lifetime’s usual suburban-home exteriors with just a free-standing sign outside supposedly identifying it as a public business) and Tryg turns up there because he works at Wally’s as a waiter. Jake contemptuously dismisses him and, just to make sure he gets the point, Jake puts on a black sweater and a hood and corners Tryg in the parking lot after he gets off work, clubbing him with a tire iron and stealing his wallet. (Remember, this is a guy who has more money than God.)

Later Brooke goes to a party being hosted by one of her age-peer and class-peer friends, Riley Pratt (Blake Canning), and this being a teen party in a Lifetime movie there’s a lot of drinking, drugging and screwing going on (though this is also one of those “wild” movie parties whose function seems to be to make the demi-monde look so boring real-life teen viewers are discouraged from entering it themselves) and Brooke, who’s not supposed to be drinking at all because she’s on psych meds for a condition called “IED” (“Impulsive Explosive Disorder” — I’d never heard of it before and the only context in which I’d heard “IED” before was as an acronym for “Improvised Explosive Devices,” the homemade bombs with which Iraqi resisters bedeviled U.S. and allied forces in the second Iraq War in the early 2000’s) that makes her explode with rage at the slightest provocation, has way too much to drink and passes out in an upstairs bedroom. Later Brooke’s friend turned enemy Maddie (ya remember Maddie?) ends up passing out in the same bed, and Jake, who wasn’t invited to the party but turned up anyway, grabs a knife from the kitchen and stabs Maddie to death while Brooke obliviously sleeps through it all. He then leaves the bloody knife next to Brooke so that when she comes to she’ll think she committed the crime — and Brooke, instead of doing the obviously sensible thing and calling the police, wraps the bloody knife in a blood-spattered pillowcase and dumps the evidence in a dumpster. Alas, Jake is following her and immediately retrieves the evidence from the dumpster, then tells Brooke that he’s keeping it safe and he’ll sit on it if Brooke agrees to marry him (he even gives her an over-large engagement ring to seal the deal!) but will give it to the cops if she doesn’t.

It ends with a scene in which Brooke, carrying a gun, calls Jake and asks him to meet her at a truck stop on the outskirts of town. In the phone call she says she’s going to commit suicide because she can’t stand the stress of being a murder suspect anymore, and she tells him she’s left a note for her mom and stepdad explaining what she’s going to do and why. Jake duly shows up, admits to Brooke that he killed Maddie, then grabs the gun away from her — only just then the police arrive on the scene and tell Jake to drop the gun and surrender. Brooke’s mom and stepfather are also on the scene — obviously they were in on the plot to entrap Jake into confessing so the cops could arrest him — and when Jake briefly considers shooting it out with the cops, Brooke tells him, “Did you really think I’d give a killer a loaded gun?” Realizing he doesn’t have a chance, Jake surrenders — and there’s a chilling final scene in which Jake’s dad and sister are going through his stuff and laughing at the scam they tried to pull on him in the opening scene. “What sort of cancer was I supposed to have had, anyway?” Jake’s father says, as we realize that these incredibly creepy people who were responsible for Jake’s homicidal madness in the first place are going to get all his money. Murdered at 17 has its appeal, but especially after Killer Single Dad it was a major disappointment; Jake Campali simply isn’t as interesting a villain as Garrett Penderson, and Blake Burt gives him a one-dimensional reading of perpetual spoiled-brat irritation whenever anything doesn’t go his way — a far cry from Cameron Jebo’s subtle, nuanced performance as the psycho in Killer Single Dad. This is especially disappointing coming from Christine Conradt, whose scripts are usually above Lifetime’s norm precisely in giving multidimensionality to the characters — only in this case Ken Sanders and Daniel West were the writers who gave us a complex and even quasi-sympathetic villain character and Conradt and her co-authors who didn’t.