Two nights ago I watched an especially compelling movie on Lifetime: "Custody," which they identified as a "Premiere" (not a "World Premiere"!) even though, judging from the stellar names both in front of and behind the camera — Viola Davis and Hayden Panettiere are the writers and the writer/director is James Lapine, best known for writing the books for Stephen Sondheim's musicals "Sunday in the Park with George," "Into the Woods" and "Passion" — and also from the frequent blipping of swear words, I assume this film was intended for theatrical release. Sara Diaz (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a single mother with two kids, son David (Jaden Michael) and daughter Tia (Bryce Lorenzo — a girl named Bryce?). When David comes to school with bruises that indicate his mom may have abused him, the school calls New York's Child Protective Services department, who immediately take both David and Tia away from Sara and schedule her for a hearing in family court either to set conditions for their return or remove them permanently. Sara is not surprisingly totally freaked out by this, especially when she ends up in the courtroom of formidable Judge Martha Schulman (Viola Davis) and a blonde woman from an upper-class background, Alexandra "Ally" Fisher (Hayden Panettiere), is appointed to be her attorney. Judge Schulman is conducting the hearing at such a rapid pace that Ally has to take the case without knowing the slightest thing about what it is, let alone having a chance to confer with her client in advance. The young, naïve 25-year- old lawyer is up against no fewer than three people on the other side: a woman counsel appointed as a guardian ad litem to represent the best interest of the kids; Santoro (Raúl Esparza from the current cast of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," playing essentially the same character, a relentless prosecutor), representing Child Protective Services; and Keith Denholz (Dan Fogler), representing New York City's office of corporate counsel (essentially their version of a city attorney) and if anything even more determined to take Sara's kids away from her than Santoro is. (He's also got the hots for Ally and makes a series of embarrassingly crude passes at her.)
Santoro is especially up against it because on the last case he worked, he recommended returning a 5-year-old to the mother as she was coming out of drug rehab — only mom relapsed almost immediately, left the kid alone at home while she went out to "party," and the child died of starvation. So he's clearly bending over backwards to give Sara a hard time next she and her children be the next black mark on her résumé. As for Keith, he keeps springing surprise documents on the court, including a revelation that Sara has a criminal record for drug possession — her ex-husband Shawn (Sharrieff Pugh), father of David and Tia, was a drug dealer and smuggler who's currently serving a prison sentence, though he hid one of his drug shipments in Tia's diaper bag and that got Sara charged with being part of his drug operation. The charges were eventually dropped but they weren't expunged from her record, and Keith dredges them up again. Judge Schulman recommends that Sara get tested for drugs, and Ally assures her, "That's only to make sure you're not using cocaine or heroin" — only the test turns out positive, not for cocaine and heroin but for marijuana and PCP (Sara was with friends and family when they passed around a PCP-laced joint and she took a hit, then agreed to the drug test because she didn't realize, and Ally didn't tell her, it was for pot as well), and Keith drops that as yet another bombshell to keep Sara for getting her kids. Sara's biggest obstacle is her hair-trigger temper (that should be a lesson for me!) that causes her to blow up in court — when she finally admits that she struck her son in anger because he wouldn't behave, we believe it — and at one point Judge Schulman orders her into anger management classes.
What's most fascinating about this movie is how it counterpoints the main plot with the family dysfunctions of the characters around them: the gimmick is that just about everyone in the court system charged with making decisions about Sara and whether she's a fit parent for her kids has their own family problems. Aside from the marvelous irony that all these authority figures are trying to tell Sara how to raise her kids when their own family lives are falling apart, "Custody" is a good illustration of mystery writer and former child protective services worker Abigail Padgett's comment to me that never, if you can possibly avoid it, allow yourself or your children to be caught up in these sorts of systems because the systems have their own priorities, and those aren't likely to be yours. "Custody" has been criticized for its plethora of plot lines — though I found that for once a movie or TV show with multiple plot lines used those strands to reinforce each other and add to the dramatic point, not just to confuse people or seem like they're being "post-modern." It's an excellent movie and one which should have got a theatrical release; it also ran 2 ½ hours less commercials, not Lifetime's standard two hours, which had me worrying that they were going to make it part one of a serial (or, even worse, the pilot for a series — it wasn't at all clear from the promos Lifetime ran for it whether it was a stand-alone film or a TV series), but no-o-o-o-o, it was a stand-alone TV-movie with a satisfying if a not altogether happy ending, and it was very much worth watching and several cuts above the Lifetime norm.
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