As has become their practice, Lifetime last night (Saturday, May 20) scheduled two movies back-to-back in prime time that were too similar in plot and theme — both are about stepmothers threatened, intimidated and put in mortal peril by their stepchildren — this practice tends to make each film seem weaker than it is simply because the comparisons can’t help but expose how the writers are going to the same plot devices and gimmicks and the actors are playing similar characters in similar ways. Last night’s pairing was a bit different than the norm in that the first one they showed, the “premiere” of something called Secrets of My Stepdaughter, was considerably better than the second one, a year-old opus called The Bad Twin. Secrets of My Stepdaughter was originally shot under the title A Murderer Upstairs, which sounds more chilling but was probably rejected because it gave too much of the plot away. The central characters are mom Cindy Kent (Josie Davis), her husband Greg (Cameron Bancroft) — a trial attorney whose job takes him out of town a lot — and their kids Rachel (Tierra Skovbye) and Addy (Ali Skovbye). The identical last names of the actresses playing the sisters at least shows why they look so credible as blood relatives — they really are! — though in Conor Allyn’s screenplay (effectively and unobtrusively directed by Jem Garrard) they’re only half-sisters. Addy, the younger of the two girls, is the biological offspring of Greg and Cindy, but Rachel is Greg’s daughter by a previous wife named Martha whom we don’t meet until towards the end of the film. Martha suddenly abandoned Rachel just three months before the film begins, and Greg and Cindy took her in and tried to break through to her. Rachel got a job at a fashion store alongside her best friend Leslie (Madelyn Grace), only in the opening scene Rachel is discovered tied to a chair in the store and Leslie is next to her, bludgeoned to death with the store’s cash register. Rachel’s story is that two robbers, both wearing ski masks and gloves, burst into the store, attacked both her and Leslie, killed Leslie and left Rachel for dead — and she’s got strangulation marks on her neck to support the story. The cops uncover a young (cute, blond) man named Aaron Barker (Jared Ager-Foster) who several months earlier was stalking Leslie to the point where Leslie and her mom got out a restraining order against him, and he was in the store that night, but Aaron insists that when the murder occurred he was at home with his mother. That’s not much of an alibi, as police lieutenant Brian Smith (a big middle-aged white guy played by Garry Chalk) says; he becomes convinced early on that Aaron killed Leslie and utterly refuses to listen to any other possibilities. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before.)
His associate, detective Pam Cherfils (Lucia Walters) —oddly her last name means “dear son” and, though younger than these characters usually are in Lifetime movies, she’s the all-wise African-American who’s going to come into the story and save the white characters from their stupidity and naïveté —isn’t so sure. She sees too much of a disjunct between the meticulous planning that went into the crime as Rachel described it — robbers wearing masks and gloves to avoid being recognized and leaving fingerprints — and the seeming impulsiveness of whacking someone over the head with a cash register as a murder weapon. She also notices the bruise patterns on Rachel’s neck, which seem to her more consistent with self-inflicted bruises than a serious attempt by someone else to strangle her. Meanwhile, Rachel becomes a mini-superstar at school and gets a lot of media attention as the woman who heroically survived a terrible attack. Gradually, however, her cover-up unravels and Cindy realizes that Rachel is a psychopathic monster — especially when she murders the dog Cindy and Greg got for Addy — and Rachel does everything she can to drive wedges between her dad and her stepmom, including logging on to the Web site of a law firm specializing in divorces so her dad can look at it and think Cindy is going to break up with him. Cindy also goes to see Leslie’s mother, and though Cindy is about the last person Leslie’s mom wants to talk to, nonetheless they converse long enough for Leslie’s mom to tell Cindy that the two women were stealing expensive clothes and accessories from the store they worked for. Cindy invades Rachel’s room and discovers a large chest under her bed containing the stolen items, and as things happen she makes this find just when Pam shows up with a search warrant and the cops end up arresting Rachel for shoplifting — though Pam is hoping that charge will merely be what they hold her on while Pam continues her investigation and uncovers evidence that Rachel murdered Leslie.
Cindy is in a Kafka-esque predicament in which she becomes more and more convinced that Rachel is a stone-cold crazy killer — she even warns Addy not to let Rachel pick her up from school, advice Addy of course ignore — while just about everyone else but Pam, including Greg, Addy and Lt. Smith, is convinced that Aaron killed Leslie and Cindy is just being paranoid. We’ve also been told that Maggie, Rachel’s biological mother, had a long-standing drug problem and gave Rachel away because she’d rather do drugs than raise her kid — and for a few acts we get the impression that Rachel got damaged as a person from growing up with a drug-addicted mom who was probably in quite a lot of trouble with the law and had to make many sudden escapes — but when Cindy finally traces Maggie, who’s calling herself “Norwood” and working as a hotel maid (a white woman working as a hotel maid?), Maggie shows the scars on her arms and tells her they came from Rachel attacking her with scissors. It comes to a head in a confrontation in which Rachel manages to drug Addy and overpower Pam when Pam comes to the house, and when Cindy returns Rachel holds a gun on her and gives Cindy a knife, telling her to stab Pam to death, whereupon Rachel will shoot Cindy with the gun and claim she did so in self-defense after Cindy totally lost it. Greg comes home and originally seems prepared to believe his daughter over his wife, but eventually he realizes how crazy Rachel is and helps Lt. Smith subdue her and take her into custody. Secrets of My Stepdaughter may not sound like much in synopsis, but it’s actually a quite effective suspense thriller, powered by Jem Garrard’s effective direction and a nicely honed performance by Tiera Skovbye as Rachel, who in the best tradition of Lifetime’s psychos is quite matter-of-fact about her actions and convinces us that she simply doesn’t see anything wrong with them.