Monday, November 16, 2009

Student Seduction (CinéGroupe/Lions’ Gate, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Student Seduction, a 2003 production by a Canadian company called CinéGroupe in association with Lions’ Gate Films (their official name doesn’t have an apostrophe but, damnit, one belongs there), which like another recent Lifetime movie, A Teacher’s Crime, has a title suggesting that it’s going to be about a woman teacher who seduces an underage male student but it’s really about a teacher falsely accused of doing so. Christie Dawson (Elizabeth Berkley) is a 27-year-old who’s just returned to her teaching career after holding a series of more menial jobs in order to put her husband Drew (Rick Roberts, tall, sandy-haired and lanky but considerably hotter than most of the men Lifetime puts in their movies, especially as the heroines’ husbands) through medical school.

She’s teaching a chemistry class and is called to account by a wealthy, influential couple because she’s giving failing grades to their son, Josh Gaines (Corey Sevier), and thereby jeopardizing his place on the honor roll and his chances at admission to a fancy college. The Gaineses demand a meeting with Christie and the school’s principal, Helen Davis (Bronwen Mantel), asking Christie to cut him some slack on his chemistry grades; instead Christie offers to tutor him after school, and he’s so overjoyed that he takes her to dinner at a local hamburger joint frequented by the students — though, being the wife of a doctor, she says she doesn’t do “31 grams of fat” and only orders a salad. Josh is also dating a fellow student, Monica Corelli (Sarah Smyth) — when Lorraine Boyle (Karen Robinson), the avuncular African-American confidant for the heroine who’s part of the Lifetime schtick for stories like these, sees her and Josh deep-kissing in the hallway she says, “The next two members of the Unwed Parenthood Club” — and he also has an ex-girlfriend, Jenna, who’s sour towards Josh for reasons we don’t find out (though we start to suspect them) until about three-quarters of the way through the movie.

But Josh dumps both his age-peer girlfriends in a concentrated attempt to seduce his teacher — that’s right, the film is called Student Seduction but it’s the student who’s the would-be seducer, not the seducee — and little signs like her stroking his shoulder after he’s got a particularly difficult chemistry problem soived, or her playfully slapping him with a red glove when he offers to work on her stalled car after school and gets it going in two minutes, are piled up in the script by Edithe Swensen and Peter Svatek’s unusually subtle (at least for Lifetime) direction, and we just know that at some point all these things are going to get taken the wrong way. The climax comes when after one tutoring session Josh pushes Christie up against the hallway wall, says he knows she wants him, and gives her a full-lip kiss — and she responds by telling him to stop and slapping his silly face. The next day he walks into her home while she’s trying to fix a leaky kitchen sink (she has open a copy of a book called Plumbing for Dummies) and chases her through the house, finally catching her on the stairwell and pushing her down but not actually raping her.

She reports him for sexual assault, but the police end up totally uninterested in her story and the reason soon becomes clear: largely from the influence of Josh’s father, they’ve become convinced that Christie seduced him and she’s ultimately arrested for child molestation and all sorts of other nasty things. Though totally circumstantial, the case against her appears so strong — and Josh’s father has done such a good job manipulating the media to make her look like a slimy sexual predator (a passing shot when she goes to his office reveals that he’s the owner of a media production company, giving us a good idea of just why he’s so good at manipulating public perception) — that at the end she’s ready to take a plea bargain, confess to a felony in exchange for probation, get kicked out of the teaching profession forever and force her husband to relocate to another city where they’re unknown (and as if to twist the knife in, during this process she’s become pregnant and a good disincentive to taking the case to trial is the prospect of having to have a baby in prison) when Jenna, who previously had acknowledged to Christie that Josh raped her but had refused to testify in court, comes forward because she’s appalled by the injustice and also realizes that if Josh gets away with this he’ll rape someone else and get off scot-free again.

Student Seduction is a pretty much by-the-numbers Lifetime script (including some welcome soft-core porn interludes between Christie and her husband that serve the story function of making it difficult for us to believe she’d even be interested in anyone else) but it’s done more sensitively than usual by director Svatek and writer Swensen, and it’s especially well cast — Berkley catches the youthful vigor and enthusiasm of her character in the opening scenes quite well and is equally convincing in the Kafka-esque nightmare Svensen puts her through in the second half; and though Sevier does little for me personally (he looks like Erik Estrada’s younger brother) he’s good-looking enough that one can see why he’d end up with such a cynical view of women, the idea that he can have anyone he wants and it isn’t rape because she “really” wants him — and the actor manages the changes in his character as the mask of the nice young kid drops away and reveals the sexual psychopath within.

What’s more, Swensen and Svatek manage to bring their movie to a satisfying resolution without a heart-stopping, brutal action scene that puts Our Heroine in physical as well as psychological danger; the ending seems a bit abrupt (Jenna meets Christie and agrees to come forward, and then there’s a jump cut to Christie back in front of the chemistry class again, obviously fully exonerated) but at least it brings the piece to a close without the cheap-thrill climaxes some Lifetime writers and directors have stuck on the ends of their scripts.