Saturday, November 24, 2012

New Best Friend (FGM Entertainment/Tri-Star Pictures, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran New Best Friend, a 2002 movie recently shown on Lifetime even though it was apparently originally made for theatrical release (the production companies are something called FGM Entertainment and Tri-Star Pictures, and the ratings board gave it an “R” “for strong sexuality, language and drug use” even though its TV rating was “PG-S,” indicating that the dirty language had been removed and the drug use toned down but the sex remained). I’d had this one in the backlog for a while and I was looking forward to more soft-core porn — the hottest scene in the movie is a split-screen during the opening credits in which on the left side of the screen Alicia Campbell (Mia Kershner) is shown living a nerdy “grind” student’s life while on the right side her friend Hadley Ashton (Meredith Monroe, who’d actually be good casting in a biopic of her near-namesake Marilyn Monroe even though here she’s playing more like a cool “Hitchcock blonde” than an out-and-out sex goddess) is half-naked and making out with her boyfriend Trevor (Scott Bairstow, fourth-billed and the first male listed in the cast — and the director, Zoe Clarke-Williams, and writer, Victoria Strouse, are both women). All this is happening in Colby College in Lawrence County, North Carolina, and the film tells two parallel stories. The frame is an investigation being conducted by the newly appointed acting sheriff, Artie Bonner (Taye Diggs), into why Alicia Campbell started the year as an honor student, spiraled down into drink and drugs as Hadley befriended her, and ended up comatose and near death from an overdose. The flashback shows us the story of Alicia’s last year at Colby, as she and Hadley are paired up by a sociology teacher to do a final class project on the theme, “Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way.” Alicia is the child of a single mother (Glynnis O’Connor) and she’s determined to get into law school, but her ability to pay for it is dependent on her getting financial aid. Hadley and her two friends, Sidney Barrett (Dominique Swain) and Julianne Livingston (Rachel True), are all rich bitches who don’t have much to worry about in the way of finances, though Hadley is after her father to give her a job and he doesn’t want to because he knows there’s nothing he needs in his office (whatever it is — Strouse’s script is clear that Mr. Ashton is incredibly affluent and works in a fancy office, but it’s not at all clear what he does for a living), and he insists to her that he’ll only consider hiring her if she gets her grades up and makes straight A’s.

Hadley and Alicia form a quirky friendship out of their forced association on the project, which is going to playgrounds in grade schools in poor neighborhoods and interviewing the students while Hadley’s friend Warren (Eric Michael Cole) films them — and in one chilling scene that shows the noblesse oblige of the 1 percent Hadley slips one of the poor Black kids they’re interviewing a $50 bill and, instead of being horrified, Alicia tells her (maybe honestly, maybe hypocritically) what a wonderful thing she’s just done. For several reels it’s a typical story about a poor little not-so-rich girl worried about whether the rich will accept her and whether she can ever really be part of their clique, and whether the pretty but rather gauche-looking Alicia can make it with the girls and attract a boyfriend (or more than one boyfriend) from their circle. In order to do this she crashes one of Hadley’s parties — held at the home Hadley’s dad has bought for her, with a circular front porch that practically becomes a character in the movie itself — and starts helping herself to the plentiful booze and drugs. She starts to slip off the rails, but the rails get greased for her when she learns that though she’s been accepted to Colby’s law school, the school doesn’t have a big enough budget to give her the financial aid she needs to be able to afford it — and immediately she starts drinking, drugging and binging full-time, to the point where in a neat role reversal Hadley has to assume the reins of their school project in order to make sure it gets completed on time and both their grades in the class are secure.

New Best Friend has one big flaw — it’s structured to parallel Alicia’s downfall with Bonner’s investigation of her case, and some of the edits are awfully abrupt — we cut from Alicia the party girl to Alicia the coma patient with a breathing tube stuck in her nose, and back (at least in Citizen Kane, a pretty obvious model for this story’s structure, Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz were careful to keep us aware of when we were and whose point of view we were experiencing at any given moment) — but as annoying as the constant flashing back gets, this is a genuinely powerful and ambiguous movie in which we’re generally uncertain about both Alicia’s and Hadley’s characters and how we’re supposed to feel about them. In other Lifetime movies this has just seemed like sloppy scripting, but this time around it seems as if it’s what writer Strouse and director Clarke-Williams intended — and it’s an indication of the power of this movie that most of the debates about it on the message boards have revolved around the morals of the characters. Hadley seems at first to be your standard-issue spoiled rich bitch, but her uncertain relationship with her father and her desperation to please him gives her a degree of pathos — and Alicia is even more ambiguous, seeming as Bonner delves deeper into his investigation to be less the naïve little good girl she comes off as in the beginning but a woman with secrets and an ability to manipulate the other characters to get their sympathy. At one point she insists that she’s never had sex with a man — to which Susan, who asked her The Question, says she’s had 42 different male partners — and later Alicia and Susan get it on themselves, provoking jealousy from Julianne (who’s African-American — essentially the daughter of one of the token Blacks in the 1 percent, proving that the capitalist elite may find racism, sexism and homophobia useful divide-and-conquer strategies against the 99 percent but doesn’t need them to maintain its power and can let a few women, people of color and Queers into its ranks as long as they behave), though it’s clear that for these people Lesbian sex is just an expression of their polymorphous perversity and not either a lifestyle choice or a “born this way” status.

Later Susan says she was molested by her father and Alicia says, “Me, too, by dad number two, for five years” — indicating that Alicia is actually manipulative and good at sucking for sympathy with whomever she’s with. Alicia also makes a play for Hadley’s boyfriend Travis, justifying it because Travis was complaining that Hadley had cheated on him with Warren (their videographer), and there’s a sequence in which the characters are in some sort of outdoor location on campus and Hadley takes a fall on a grating while Travis is with Alicia telling her how honest he finds her, unlike you-know-who. The payoff comes when Hadley misses a date with her father — she’s used to him standing her up but this time he shows and Alicia, who’s carefully kept his messages from reaching Hadley, turns up instead, has dinner with him and practically flirts with him. Do they get it on or don’t they? Strouse doesn’t tell us yes or no, but he’s obviously taken enough with her that he offers her the job Hadley wanted and also to pay for her to go to law school at his alma mater, Stanford — and Hadley, whose own relationship with her dad seems to echo that between Natalie Wood’s character in Rebel Without a Cause and her father (namely, that he was so afraid of being sexually attracted to her he wouldn’t even touch her in ordinarily legitimate ways), has a jealous hissy-fit. She scores 100 percent pure pharmaceutical-grade cocaine from an orderly in the hospital where she was being treated for her fall — he’s tall and a bit dorky but not bad-looking and, of course, sex (or the offer of sex) is the lure Hadley uses to get him to do her bidding — then sneaks it into one of the multicolored envelopes in which the local drug dealer puts his considerably weaker (20 percent pure) cocaine product, puts it in a stash in her dresser that Alicia was used to stealing from, and Alicia does the whole packet and goes into a coma. (Hadley later explains she didn’t want to kill Alicia, just to make her dad see that Alicia wasn’t the goody-two-shoes he thought and therefore was unworthy of his help.)

Bonner figures all this out because the medical examiner recovered residue from Alicia’s nose showing that the “hot” dose was pure cocaine and not the usual street product, and that gives him the clue he needs to unravel the whole case — despite the efforts of the college dean (Edmund Kearney), whose “pull” with the City Council will decide whether Bonner gets hired as the sheriff full-time, to get him to call off his investigation because the town gets 90 percent of its tax revenue from the college and its students, and anything that discredits the college and makes the rich parents less likely to send their kids there is going to hurt the town. So in a way New Best Friend is a story of two people — Alicia and Bonner — both of whom are aware in no uncertain terms that in order to get ahead they have to suck up to the super-rich, only Alicia tries to deal with them from a position of deceit while Bonner retains his integrity, pursues his investigation to the end and ultimately resigns as acting sheriff in a handing-over-his-badge scene much like the ending of Dirty Harry — after he does the Law and Order thing and arrests Hadley right after she receives her degree in Colby’s graduation ceremony, the most publicly embarrassing place he can take her into custody. It’s a surprisingly effective film that works on many levels (though it’s clear from the reviews that a considerable amount of the original’s soft-core porn lubricity was cut from the Lifetime version): as a tale of school friendships gone horribly awry, a just-say-no movie (in the earlier scenes Alicia, the dedicated, non-partying student, reminded me of me) and a parable of class and class consciousness reflecting an F. Scott Fitzgerald-ish love-hate relationship towards the rich.