Sunday, January 13, 2019

My Mother’s Split Personalities (Reel One Entertainment, Thrilling Films, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched two Lifetime TV-movies in a row, both of them advertised as “premieres” even though the second one in the sequence, The Wrong Friend, must have been shown before in some context because it had 11 reviews on (most of them saying how wretched the acting was) and was dated 2018 whereas the first film in the sequence, My Mother’s Split Personalities, was dated 2019 and therefore really did seem to be a “premiere.” My Mother’s Split Personalities was originally intended as part of the “_____ at 17” series since it was shot under the working title (the one lists for it) as Terrified at 17, and it dealt with the once-fashionable diagnosis of multiple personality disorder that generated films like The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil, both based on best-selling books about (allegedly) real cases. There’s a revisionist literature suggesting that multiple personalities don’t really exist and that Sybil — or Shirley Ann Mason, to use her real name — was really a garden-variety schizophrenic misdiagnosed by an unscrupulous psychiatrist who exploited her for years. The film opens with an (at first) incomprehensible sequence in which two men who look strikingly similar (both dark-haired but otherwise the tall, lanky type Lifetime generally likes in its sympathetic males) in which they’re in the home of one of them, Jeffrey Price (Paul Popowich). He’s drinking with a (supposed) friend of his, Warren Stacey (Jefferson Brown), when Warren slips a drug into his drink, killing him in a way that makes it look like he had a heart attack and died naturally. It turns out that Jeffrey Price was fabulously rich — well, $55 million dollars’ worth of rich, anyway — but to maintain that status he was also very busy taking a lot of business trips (and we’re clearly intended by writer Stephen Romano to believe they were just business trips and not pretexts for him having an affair).

Instead, out of loneliness and frustration his wife Gail (Lindsay Hartley) started her own affair with Warren, not knowing that Warren was a con artist and already married to Toni Conrad (Jordana Lajoie), the bartender who introduced him to Gail as part of an elaborate plot to get the Price family’s fortune by killing Jeffrey, seducing and marrying Gail, getting her to transfer the inheritance to him, then taking her to South America, killing her there and then sending for his true love, Toni, to join him there. While all this is going on Gail starts showing the indicia of what used to be called multiple personality disorder and is now known as dissociative identity disorder (DID). She keeps talking about “staying in the light” as if she’s doing New Age/New Thought exercises, but it turns out that in this version of DID “staying in the light” is the code term for whichever one of Gail’s alternate personalities is inhabiting her body: Gail, the normal upper-class suburban housewife; Madeleine, the slut; Amy, the six-year-old girl who fastens on Gail’s real-life daughter Julie (Kayla Wallace) and identifies herself as the daughter and Julie as her mom; and Sadie, the psycho killer. The central intrigue in this one is whether Julie and her quasi-boyfriend Mike Jared (Benjamin Eli — curious that both the character and the actor playing him have two first names), depicted as a tousled-haired nerd who’s cute but not drop-dead gorgeous (and who’s clearly in unrequited love with Julie — in another sort of Lifetime movie that would make him the villain but we’re obviously supposed to think of him as a nice guy on the side of good in this one) — can prove their suspicions that Warren is a rotter after Julie’s mom’s money before he succeeds in marrying her, getting his hands on her fortune and offing her in a remote country with which the U.S. doesn’t have an extradition treaty. Given that the first thing we saw was Warren offing Gail’s husband with a drug that simulates a heart attack (I’ve read that in the 1960’s the CIA actually developed such a drug), I had assumed through most of the film that Gail wasn’t really a multiple personality victim but Warren was slipping her something on their various dinner dates that made her think she was — but eventually writer Romano and director Curtis James Crawford (a frequent collaborator with Christine Conradt, whose ability even within the Lifetime formulae to create genuinely rich, multidimensional characters is sorely missed here) make it clear that we’re supposed to think Gail is the real DID McCoy.

In one scene — ironically, just after Mike has jokingly called Julie “Lois Lane” — Gail transitions to Madeleine, goes out to a bar called Épicure (which seems like an awfully sleazy place for such a pretentious yuppie-ish name) and gets picked up by a man with a striking resemblance to Lex Luthor, only as soon as he takes her out of the bar to wherever he thinks he’s going to get to fuck her, she transitions again and Sadie attacks him. She escapes arrest only because Julie, who’s been following her mom hoping she was going out with Warren and Julie could get the goods on Warren as a no-good seducer and con artist, showed up and agreed with the cops that she could take her mom home and no charges would be pressed. The situation is complicated by the fact that Julie is an intellectual prodigy who left home at 16 to take advantage of a fantastic college fellowship that’s only awarded to three people every five years, and mom didn’t want to let her go — and this seems to have been the event that triggered mom’s descent into multiple-personalitydom. Julie finds (absurdly easily) an old journal that contains an account of Gail’s own childhood — the hellish maelstrom of parental abuse that seems to be the origin story of all movie multiple personalities — and when she reports her discoveries to the police they don’t believe her. Fortunately, Toni Conrad (ya remember Toni Conrad?) was concerned enough about her own well-being and the possibility that Warren might turn on her and knock her off that she recorded all their discussions of the murder plot against Gail, and in exchange for lenient treatment she leads the cops to this evidence and they set out to arrest Warren just as he’s taking Gail out of the country on a private plane. Gail insists that before they leave she wants to speak to her daughter one last time, and when Warren gets angry Gail manages to get him to stop the car, whereupon she goes into a restaurant and borrows someone else’s cell phone to call Julie — who’s with the cops trying to figure out where Warren and Gail are. In the climax, Warren corners Julie and is about to kill her when Gail saves her daughter’s life by stabbing Warren to death — and in the end Julie is safe and Gail ends up in a mental institution for the criminally insane, where she reports to her visiting daughter that she’s “doing better.”

My Mother’s Split Personalities has a few interesting twists in their formulae — for one thing, I can’t recall them doing multiple personality in a fiction film (though they did do a remake of the supposedly “true” story of Sybil); also the know-it-all character who finds out who the villain is and what he’s up to but is killed before they can tell anyone else isn’t an African-American woman, as usual, but a white man: Jeffrey’s brother John (Richard Nash), who has connections because he’s the special assistant to the mayor of the town where all this is taking place (unidentified in Romano’s script, though judging from the license plates it appears to be in Washington state), whom Warren, whose favorite modi operandi of murder is making his crimes look like natural or accidental death, kills by pitching him down a flight of stairs in John’s own home (which he’s broken into ridiculously easily — apparently, though these are all affluent people, none of them have a home security system). My Mother’s Split Personalities benefits from engagingly Gothic direction by Crawford and a florid, all-out performance by Lindsay Hartley as the multi-mom, elements which put this at least a bit above the common run of Lifetime movies, but it’s still pretty much a chip off the old cliché block. And I also should give a shout-out to actress Sarah Kryszak as Jane Banner, the psychology professor Julie and Mike go to for background information on dissociative identity disorder, who in order to express the character’s erudition pronounces the “t” in “often.”