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Slow going early on, but stick with it and it's great!
The "world premiere" Lifetime movie last night was "The Perfect Daughter," a title which led me to assume Christine Conradt wrote it and it was another in her series of "The Perfect _____" movies (as opposed to her "_____ at 17" movies and her "The _____ S/he Met Online" movies). Wrong on both counts: it was directed by Brian Herzlinger from a script by Brian McAuley, and was originally shot as "The Carpenter's Daughter" until someone at Marvista Entertainment or Lifetime itself decided to give it a moniker that would include the word "Perfect" to fit it into their long-running occasional series. The first 40 minutes or so were pretty disappointing, as we get to meet good little high-school senior Natalie Parish (Sadie Calvano) and her dad Martin Parish (Brady Smith, a better-looking man than usually plays a teenager's parent in a Lifetime movie). Martin has a two-person building contractor business with his former brother-in-law, Nick Barnes (Johann Urb, who despite some formidable competition struck me as the sexiest man in the film), and he's also been raising his daughter as a single parent since the death of his wife Sarah years earlier — long enough ago that Natalie has no living memory of her mom and the only evidence we see of her is a framed photo of the three of them taken while Natalie was still an infant. At the start of the film Natalie is running for student body treasurer against the ultra-popular Kalie (Lorynn York) and she fully expects to lose — only she wins (oddly, Herzlinger and McAuley depict Kalie's class speech but not Natalie's, keeping us in suspense for an act or two as to how the election turned out), and as a result Sam Cahill, Kalie's boyfriend, dumps her and invites Natalie to the school hockey game that night (he's the school's star hockey player) and to a party at his place right after. Complicating things is that Sam's father, attorney Brian Cahill (Parker Stevenson, who 40 years ago was Shaun Cassidy's sidekick on the "Hardy Boys" show), just arranged for Martin and Nick to get a major remodeling job. Alas, the next time Martin sees his daughter she's in the middle of the road, clearly pretty much out of it, and she admits she drank too much at the party. Dad gets her into his truck and takes her to the emergency room, where she's admitted, diagnosed with alcohol poisoning and also discovered to have had sex. She insists that she consented and that Sam Cahill was her partner — the party ended abruptly when the other guests caught them at it and left — but Dad is convinced she was raped and demands that police detective Schaffer (Drew Rausch) investigate the case as a rape.
For the first hour or so "The Perfect Daughter" is the sort of movie that makes you wonder why you're bothering to watch it — if you stick with it you'll get angrier and angrier at Martin and think he, not his daughter, is the irresponsible one — but about midway through this film clicks into high gear. It becomes obvious that Herzlinger and McAuley want you to think of Martin as the villain — indeed, aside from Julie Cahill, virtually all the adults in the movie act irresponsibly and crazily and it's Sam and Natalie who, having made their one big mistake (getting plastered at that party and having sex without "protection"), are far more responsible than the grownups in dealing with the aftermath and making competent, sensible decisions instead of letting their emotions run away with them — down to Natalie's cold-blooded calculation that she and Sam (who have to work together anyway since she's the student body treasurer and he's the president) should indulge in as many public displays of affection as possible so her classmates will realize she wanted to have sex with him and he was not a rapist. A movie that seemed unbearably larded-on in the first half suddenly acquires real emotional heft and power, as McAuley's writing improves and his characters take on multiple dimensions and become believable as human beings instead of stick figures in a Lifetime melodrama. For the first half of this film you might be tempted to turn it off or change the channel in mid-stream, but stay with "The Perfect Daughter" and it will provide you a wrenching emotional experience, hammered home not only by the subtlety of McAuley's writing (for once a Lifetime movie does not come to a pat, easy conclusion; also, for once in a Lifetime movie, the characters grow, change and learn something about themselves over the film's running time, especially when daddy Martin realizes that the reason he's been so relentlessly overprotective of his daughter is fear that without a tight leash, she'd grow up like her mom and become sexually adventurous with multiple partners) but the quiet strength of Herzlinger's direction and fine acting by a well-assembled cast — notably Smith as Martin, Stevenson as Bruce Cahill and Reiley McClendon, a stocky young man with a facial resemblance to the young Elvis, as Sam — he's nice-looking but not so overwhelmingly attractive you'd wonder why half the girls in school aren't carrying his kids!
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