Sunday, February 14, 2016

Wrong Swipe (Cartel Pictures, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on Lifetime last night and watched a pretty typical one of their “made-for-TV movies,” the “world premiere” of something with the bizarre and dorky-sounding title Wrong Swipe. Directed by Matthew Leutwiler from a script by Sophie Tilson and Shanrah Wakefield (I’m presuming that’s two women writing a script to be directed by a man — I’ve praised Lifetime for giving opportunities to women directors before and I’m mildly curious why they didn’t do so here), Wrong Swipe refers to a dating application — or, to use the current argot, “app” — for smartphones. Swipe is the name of this thing and its peculiar feature is it not only matches you with potential mates based on an algorithm comparing the “profiles” they submit, its intrusiveness in your life reaches NSA-level proportions. Every time someone who’s marked themselves as having a “crush” on you comes within 100 feet of you, it sounds an alert on your phone and sends you a text message to that effect — and it repeats that process if the person comes within 50 feet of you, and again if they’re even closer. The film actually begins with a suburban dinner scene in which a middle-aged man, his wife and their two daughters are sitting down to dinner when one of them complains that dad’s car is blocking their own. (The show is surprisingly uncertain as to how old its protagonists are, but it seems from this opening that the daughters — one of them, anyway ­— are at least old enough to drive.) Dad goes out to move it — and is gunned down and killed by a kid in a hoodie who was trying to steal his car. Next there’s a title reading “Five Years Later” — Lifetime does a lot of this gimmick of starting the story well before the main events take place and then flashing us forward, but the gap between prologue and main story is usually not that long — and it turns out the daughters, sisters Sasha (Karissa Staples) and Anna (Anna Hutchison) Taylor, have bought (or rented, we’re not sure which — just as only a phone number with a 213 area code gives away that this is taking place in the Los Angeles area) a home of their own while their mom is still living in seclusion in the same house the family was in when dad was murdered. They’re both in college — Anna keeps talking about going to law school but she’s already taking a criminal law class from professor Ivan (Eric Scott Woods), while Sasha is studying art — and Sasha has a seemingly excellent relationship with an old boyfriend named Matt (Rhys Ward) who’s cute without being overwhelmingly sexy and who seems to be nuzzling her just about every time he’s over at their house, which is often. Sasha boasts that after losing track of him she re-connected with Matt through this really cool dating app called Swipe, and at one point she grabs Anna’s phone and starts signing her up for Swipe without telling her or getting her permission.

Anna is a “grind” with little interest in men, period — she’d much rather curl up with a law book (or a computer logged on to a legal Web site) than some guy — and though she tries out Swipe and even gets a few dates from it, she’s not thrilled by the experience. The first guy she meets via Swipe is Todd (Blake Berris), who’s been supplied by the costume and prop departments with a pair of Buddy Holly-style glasses just so we know he’s a nerd (albeit a socially challenged nerd who doesn’t know enough about social interactions to be comfortable about women, so he’s either retiring or too strong). He’s a fellow student in her criminal-law class whom she’s never noticed before, and he keeps coming on to her because “you swiped me!” even though she keeps trying to explain that in the non-Internet world she has nothing particularly against him but doesn’t like him that way. Her next date is a guy named Jake (Arthur Napiontek, who especially in his half-open shirt did more for me than any of the other males in the cast), a jock from her high-school days who’s since bulked up even more and acquired an attitude; when she turns away from him on their first date in a bar and picks up her phone to receive a call from her mom, Jake slips something from a small white vial into her drink. Fortunately, Anna leaves the bar to go to her mom and only takes a small amount of the drugged drink, but it’s enough that when she returns home from her mom’s the stuff puts her under and she passes out. (I joked that Jake apparently wanted to be the white Bill Cosby.) Her next Swipe date is a considerable improvement: a nice guy, an aspiring architect named Pete (Philipp Karner) who’s genuinely attractive and who therefore, by Lifetime’s iconography, is marked as either a villain or (less likely) a victim. Unfortunately, Anna’s life is being made miserable by one of her Swipe wanna-be boyfriends, who keeps intruding on the space within which the program will alert her to his presence and sending her texts headed “Watching U.”

There’s actually an effective level of suspense as to who it’s going to turn out to be — though much of the suspense is trying to guess ahead of the writers which of the common Lifetime cliché tropes they’ll invoke to move their story to the next level. There are a couple of red-herring shots that hint that Anna’s professor is her cyber-stalker (he lectures her about having her cell phone on in class and then, once she’s left at the end of the period, starts tapping away at his own phone), and eventually Anna reports what’s going on to the police and gives them the names of Todd, Jake and other guys she’s met through the site. It turns out [spoiler alert!] that the real cyber-stalker is Sasha’s boyfriend Matt — the revelation gives us a neat frisson even though writers Tilson and Wakefield don’t even bother to try to give him a comprehensible motive. At least they resisted the temptation they must have felt to have him turn out also to be the car thief who killed their dad five years earlier! There’s a nice confrontation scene in which Anna traces Matt to a deserted restaurant and carries her dad’s old gun, which she’s never fired since the days when dad took his girls to shooting ranges and let them practice — Matt gets the drop on her and gets the gun, they struggle, the gun falls loose, the police arrive but it’s Sasha who shoots down her ex-boyfriend for attacking her sister and also strangling Pete in his car in an earlier scene (which was where this movie went from being dramatically credible fun to totally off-the-wall). There’s a tag scene with the two women single but alive and otherwise well at the end, and mom finally coming out of her hermit-like shell to be with them at their place. It’s a competent, well-done movie with a lot of suspense but too many loose ends and other lacunae in the plot to be all that good — though kudos to casting director Paul Ruddy for actually having found three actresses who look enough alike to be credible in the parts of a mother and her two daughters!