Sunday, September 8, 2019

Identity Theft of a Cheerleader (Johnson Production Group, Lifetime, 2019)

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

Last night’s Lifetime movies were both pretty much formula pieces but offered some fresh and engaging “spins” on the formula. The first was billed as a “premiere” and had the bizarre, risible title Identity Theft of a Cheerleader, which seems as if it was the result of a brainstorm in a Lifetime writers’ room: “Hey, we get good ratings when we put ‘identity theft’ in a title, and we get good ratings when we put ‘cheerleader’ in a title. How about ‘Identity Theft of a Cheerleader’?” I had seen this listed in the TV section of the Los Angeles Times and assumed it was a story about someone stealing the identity of a cheerleader and the poor girl whose identity has been stolen suddenly realizing that someone using her name and ID is committing massive amounts of online fraud and other crimes even while the real person isn’t old enough to vote, smoke or drive. Instead it was a script by Barbara Kymlicka (I’ve joked about her before, noting that since she writes a lot of stories about heavy-breathing sex between nubile young teen girls and horny older men it’s appropriate she sign them “Cum-licker” — but though this isn’t great shakes as writing it is the best script I’ve seen from her) supposedly “inspired” by a true story of a 30-year-old woman who stole the identity of a high-school student so she could go back, make the cheerleading squad and rise in her pre-destined path to president of a college sorority and then partner in a major law firm. The woman in question is Vicki Patterson (Mairia Walsh), and a prologue shows her during her actual high-school years; she tries out for the cheerleading squad in her junior year, doesn’t make it and is chewed out by her dragon-lady mother, Angie Patterson (Gail O’Grady), who tells her that since she missed the first rung on the success ladder mom herself took — cheerleading squad captain, college sorority president, partner in big law firm — she’ll never amount to anything and she might as well just give up. “Second place is just the first loser!” this mom-from-hell tells her daughter, words that stay with her as Vicki drops out of high school altogether, gets a job clerking at a Big Box store (that’s actually what they call it in the movie since they obviously didn’t want to have to license the name of a real big-box store chain) and settles into an apartment co-signed for by her well-to-do mom. 

She also falls into a relationship with a not especially good-looking and awfully crabby boyfriend named Darren Webb (Matty Finochio — with a last name like that I wonder if he does drag) who spends the birthday money mom just sent her when she hit the big 3-0 on a laptop computer so he can spend his days doing online gambling. When the sympathetic African-American supervisor at Big Box sorrowfully tells Vicki that “corporate” has decided she needs to make layoffs, and as the last full-timer hired Vicki is the one whose job is on the chopping block, Vicki stumbles on a student ID dropped by a co-worker, Caitlyn Sparks (Shelby Armstrong), who had just decided to drop out before her senior year and move in with her boyfriend. So Vicki decides to pose as Caitlyn and enroll herself in Glendale High. The two look almost nothing alike — Caitlyn is stocky and blonde while Vicki is pert, petite and black-haired (and I was a bit surprised there wasn’t a scene of her dyeing her hair to look blonde, though since Vicki is still trying to maintain her old life with mom and Darren and pretend she still has the Big Box job when she’s actually going to high school, she can’t actually change her appearance to match the person she’s supposedly impersonating) —but Vicki bluffs her way into Glendale High. On her first day at school she tells off a teacher who says her interpretation of a William Blake poem is wrong, and she starts building a circle of friends that includes Maddy (Naika Toussaint), the Black girlfriend of Craig (Bzhaun Rhoden), the top Black player on Glendale High’s football team; and Heather (Karis Cameron), girlfriend of Glendale High’s top white athlete, Liam Fleming (Jesse Irving, a nice young cutie but a bit too much of a twink to do much for me). 

The three try out for cheerleading and all make the team, but the (mostly) sympathetic middle-aged white woman who coaches the squad makes Maddy the captain and relegates “Caitlyn” to “co-captain.” With her mom’s words that “second is just the first loser” echoing in her ears, Vicki/“Caitlyn” determines to sabotage Maddy’s status as cheerleader captain so she can take over, and she gets her inspiration when she spills some cooking oil in the kitchen and Darren nearly slips and falls from it. Vicki takes a large jug of oil and pours it on a bench on the grandstand bleachers, then asks Maddy to demonstrate the dance routine Maddy wants to teach the new cheerleading team while standing on the oil-soaked bleacher bench. Though this seems like an awfully chancy and unlikely-to-succeed plot against your rival, it works; Maddy takes a fall off the bleachers and fractures her ankle, and while she’s O.K. she’s off the cheerleader squad and “Caitlyn” is now captain. She next sets her lascivious sights on Liam, whom she talks into hosting a hard-drinking party while his parents are out of town. She meets Heather at Heather’s place and figures out the hiding place where Heather’s parents have put the key to their liquor cabinet, takes a big hit of vodka (surprisingly cheap vodka given the overall well-appointedness of the abode, indicating that like virtually all the parents in this movie, Heather’s have money) and makes it look like Heather did it. When Heather’s parents come home from wherever they went and realize someone got into their liquor cabinet, they naturally assume it’s Heather and she’s following the path of her (unseen) older sister, who we’ve already been told is doing a stint in rehab for teenage drinking (and probably drugs as well). So they call Heather and summon her home immediately, which leaves Vicki alone with Liam after the party breaks up and enables her to seduce him. 

The rest of the movie follows the usual path of an impersonation story, with Vicki confronting one trap after another that threatens to “out” her and us wondering just when and where she will meet her comeuppance. When the kids innocently go out to the mall where the Big Box Vicki used to work at is located, and the real Caitlyn Sparks spots her and says hello, Vicki is able to lie her way out of it and escape detection for now. When Vicki throws her no-good boyfriend Darren out, and he starts following her and realizes what she’s up to, he tries to blackmail her and she responds by clubbing him to death with a frying pan, then disposes of the body in a nearby wood. When the real Caitlyn decides she wants to return to high school after all and tells Vicki she’s going to enroll in Glendale instead of the school she previously dropped out of, Vicki kills her and stuffs the dead Caitlyn in the trunk of Caitlyn’s own car. On the night of Glendale’s first game and pep rally of the year — oddly, though this is supposed to be the start of the school year, they’re playing basketball instead of football — Heather catches on to the whole thing because she’s seen a photo of Vicki and her parents in front of a fish-and-chips restaurant that closed a decade earlier — only Vicki was teenage then. Of course, like so many idiots in previous Lifetime movies, instead of doing the intelligent thing and quietly reporting Vicki either to school authorities or the police, Heather confronts Vicki directly and for her pains is knocked out, locked in a secure storage room in the school’s athletics building, and left for dead — only Liam, already suited up for the game, hears her cries for help and ultimately rescues her. 

In the end, the cops show up at the game and arrest Vicki for Darren’s murder just as she’s going to have her Big Moment leading the cheerleading squad in the pep rally just before the game — a predictable Lifetime schtick already done by writers Andrea Canning and Lynn Keller in Homekilling Queen four months ago, also a story about the high-school bitch from hell determined to do anything, no matter how high the body count she racks up, to have the top honor at a high-school function because her mom has convinced her that unless she makes it to the top rung in high school she’ll have a totally miserable life thereafter. There’s a tag scene showing Heather and Liam together, as God (or at least Barbara Kymlicka) obviously intended, while we see Vicki in what appears to be the mental ward of the prison, looking on as members of a prison sports team work out and fantasizing being a cheerleader for them. Identity Theft of a Cheerleader is at least a bit above the Lifetime same-old same-old (despite having a title risible even by their standards), largely because of a script by Kymlicka that doesn’t deal with any form of prostitution (blessedly this is not set in the Whittendale universe that has powered so many of Kymlicka’s and her usual, and equally unfortunately named, collaborator J. Bryan Dick’s worst stories) and in which she achieves some of the same moral ambiguity and complexity of Christine Conradt’s best Lifetime scripts, well-honed performances by the cast members, Mairia Walsh and Karis Cameron in particular, and tough, no-nonsense direction by Christie Will Wolf, whose résumé lists 25 directorial credits (mostly making-of featurettes, holiday specials and TV movies) but who’s clearly qualified to direct theatrical features if that damned glass wall keeping most women from those jobs ever shatters.