Sunday, March 20, 2016

Mommy’s Little Girl (NB Thrilling Films, Reel One Films, Lifetime, 2016)

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

Last night Lifetime presented two recent TV-movie productions back to back, first the March 19 “world premiere” of Mommy’s Little Girl and then a repeat of last Saturday’s “world premiere,” The Stepchild. I had high hopes for Mommy’s Little Girl as soon as I saw Christine Conradt’s name among the writing credits — she came up with the “original” story and co-wrote the actual script with Mark Sanderson, while her frequent collaborator Curtis James Crawford directed — and I wasn’t disappointed: though both the overall premise and several specific incidents are heavily, shall we say, “borrowed” from Maxwell Anderson’s play The Bad Seed (and the marvelous film Mervyn LeRoy made from it in 1956 — at least it’s a marvelous film if you stop watching it at the point where the play ends and avoid the tacked-on ending the Production Code Administration insisted on), Mommy’s Little Girl is a great suspense thriller. Maybe it’s not an all-time classic but it holds the attention, it entertains and gives us the nice clean dirty frissons of fun for which we (at least I) go to Lifetime in the first place. It begins at the home of Elana Connell (Deborah Grover), an insanely (literally) moralistic woman who for the last 10 years has raised her grandchild Sadie (Emma Hentschel) after Sadie’s mom Theresa (Fiona Gubelmann, top-billed) flamed out on alcohol (and possibly drugs as well, though the Conradt-Sanderson script isn’t specific about exactly what her addictions were) and the authorities were going to put Sadie in the foster-care system (the word “care” there should really be in quotes!) if grandma didn’t take her. Grandma is a flinty type who lives in a clapboard house — one could readily imagine both the house and Deborah Grover being models for Grant Wood — and she’s devastated when Theresa shows up at her door, announces she’s clean, sober and engaged to a well-to-do toy company executive named Aaron Myers (James Gallanders, one of the few genuinely attractive men in a Lifetime movie who isn’t stuck playing a villain!) who’s already got a son, Josh (Mikael Conde), from an earlier wife. For the first act or so it’s not altogether apparent just where the Conradt-style intrigue is going to come from, but it soon develops that Sadie has become a spoiled-brat psycho who’ll do just about anything to get her way, from ratting on Josh when she catches him drinking in the backyard to responding to two class bullies at school — she’s never been to school before because her grandma home-schooled her — Dylan (Sam Ashe Arnold, a cute tow-headed kid who’ll probably grow up to be a heartbreaker) and Alliree (Mia Kechichian) — by stealing a box of Dylan’s action-figure toys, using a cigarette lighter she inherited from her grandfather (John Koensgen)[1] to melt the face off one of them, and taping the mutilated toy to the inside of Dylan’s locker door (how did she open it?). She also gets homicidally mad at her seemingly nice and caring teacher, Miss Goldin (Alix Sideris), when she does a show-and-tell about the lighter in class and Miss Goldin confiscates it.

She happens to be going through Miss Goldin’s purse and notices an IV pen with a drug whose label carefully states it’s “for nut allergies,” and of course Christine Conradt is too good a script constructionist to drop a big hint like that in her cliché bank without using it. Sadie agrees to meet Miss Goldin at her house (she finds her via Google Earth, and it’s from the scene in which she logs on and pulls up the relevant map that we finally learn this story is taking place in Philadelphia, though of course this being a Lifetime production it’s “played” by an unnamed city in Canada) to return Dylan’s action figures (at least the rest of them that she hasn’t mutilated), and she brings along a package of marzipan cake she had her mom and stepdad-to-be buy her once she realized that the stuff’s key ingredient is almonds. Sadie filches the IV pen from Miss Goldin’s purse, hides it in her couch, then feeds her the almond cake and watches her go into convulsions and expire (though just in case she might survive the attack Sadie smothers her on her way out of the house), then gets on the little pink bicycle in her matching little pink outfit and rides away. The scene is obviously ripped off from Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, in which the villainess (played by Tallulah Bankhead in the original stage production and Bette Davis —who else? —in the 1941 movie) offs her decent husband by letting him collapse on their stairs of a heart attack and withholding the medication that could have saved his life — and not only is the overall plot strongly reminiscent of The Bad Seed but director Crawford probably screened it for Emma Hentschel, since her portrayal of Sadie is clearly patterned on the superb little-bitch performance of Patty McCormick in The Bad Seed, all gooey sweet smiles on the surface and psychopathic rage underneath. Alas, not only were there two witnesses to her flight from Miss Goldin’s — a guidance counselor at school who takes over Miss Goldin’s class after she’s dead and a local athlete who discovered Miss Goldin’s body when he accidentally threw a ball into her yard and leaped her fence to fetch it — but Aaron, Sadie’s mother’s fiancé, catches on when he finds out the school friend named “Samantha” Sadie claimed to be visiting when she was really miles away killing Miss Goldin doesn’t really exist.

It builds to a surprisingly credible (for Christine Conradt, anyway) finale in which Sadie, who previously had looked forward to the wedding of her mom Theresa to Aaron and had even been given a bridesmaid’s dress identical, except for its size, to the one her mom was going to wear as the bride, now decides that Aaron is trying to come between her and her mom and assaults him with a baseball bat. Theresa comes in and saves him, then Sadie grabs a knife and it’s touch and go whether Theresa will be able to get it away from her before she stabs either Aaron, her own mother, or herself (there’s one ambiguous shot in the sequence that hints Sadie may have briefly contemplated suicide). Ultimately, she does, and Sadie is subdued and eventually turned over to a mental institution for crazy kids — the fate she’s been fearing all movie, though once she’s there she actually rather likes it: certainly her fellow inmates are less standoffish than the kids at the outside school (though we’re simply told that instead of being shown it), and she’s allowed to keep wearing the bridesmaid’s dress because it has great symbolic value for her. The last scene shows Theresa and Aaron, now officially married, visiting Sadie in the institution, and Sadie glowing with joy and looking forward to the soon-to-come day when she’ll be let out and can live with her mom and mom’s husband again — and then Theresa sadly tells Aaron on their way out that she will never be leaving that place. Though I might have preferred a dark ending along the lines of Anderson’s original for The Bad Seed (in which “bad girl” Rhoda Penmark and her father are left together after the death of her mom, the last person who knew the secret that innocent-looking Rhoda was really a “bad seed” psycho killer), and there are a few of the plot holes typical of Conradt’s work (including one even the weird woman, whose name I think is Eileen Foley, who does interstital comments on the Lifetime films between commercials and whose snarky points get awfully Mystery Science Theatre 3000-ish at times, pointed out: why, when Miss Goldin has a deathly allergy to any food containing nuts, does she eat the cake Sadie proffers her without even asking her what’s in it?), for the most part Mommy’s Little Girl is a solidly entertaining thriller that’s helped by the fact that we know exactly who the culprit is and therefore the suspense isn’t over whodunit but how the characters are going to find out who we know is doin’ it.

[1] Whom, a flashback scene reveals, Sadie had previously killed when he tried to take her down to the basement for “punishment” once too often — and we also see Sadie kill her grandmother when she comes to Sadie’s mom and demands to be paid back for all her expenses taking care of Sadie.