Max Carver, Laura Samuels, Daniela Bobadilla and Laura Slade Wiggins (from left)
A scheme by some Southern California teenagers to finesse their College Entrance Test goes horribly awry in The Cheating Pact, an uneven but unusually well acted TV movie premiering tonight on Lifetime.
Doug Campbell, who both co-wrote and directed the film, opens the story with the four principal characters taking the test for the first time. Whiz-kid misfit Meredith (Laura Slade Wiggins) zips through the exam with 25 minutes to spare, but the other three – Heather, Kylie and Jordan – tank the test pretty badly.
Kylie (Laura Samuels), a classic Mean Girl who transferred to the school the previous year and immediately supplanted Meredith as weak-willed Heather’s (Daniela Bobadilla) best friend, rejects the radical idea of, you know, actually studying for a makeover test in favor of urging Heather to cozy up to Meredith and persuade her to re-take the test for them, using false identification cards. After all, Meredith desperately needs money to help her unemployed father pay medical bills for his other child, a special-needs student (hey, I warned you this movie was uneven).
Meredith, who is miserably lonely, warily accepts Heather’s offer and aces the test for her, but when Kylie – who has made life a living hell for Meredith since her transfer – tries to hire Meredith to take the test for her, Meredith understandably balks. This doesn’t sit well with Kylie, especially after Meredith also takes the test for Kylie’s boyfriend, Jordan (Max Carver, Teen Wolf), whose unisex first name makes it possible for Meredith to fake his identity, too.
Kylie’s fury drives her to blackmail Meredith, who retaliates with her own little prank on her nemesis, until finally The Cheating Pact spins off from a fairly interesting look at a genuinely troubling social issue and turns into a melodramatic “cautionary tale” that can be taken about as seriously as Reefer Madness.
Even under these less than ideal circumstances, the young stars give improbably strong performances. Among the best is Samuels, whose character’s nastiness is rooted in the pressures of growing up with an overachieving sister and a chilly mother (Paula Trickey) who firmly believes in winning at all costs. Wiggins also is very good as Meredith, conveying an inner feistiness that helps mitigate the cloying sweetness of that unfortunate subplot involving her disabled sibling. Carver, who used to play one of Lynette Scavo’s mischievous twins on Desperate Housewives, may be playing a lunkhead here, but he also shows us Jordan’s innate decency that, ultimately, plays a key role in the story’s resolution.
Ironically, Bobadilla, who gets top billing as Heather, has by far the least interesting character, but she’s still quite affecting as a teenager who grows to realize she has behaved shamefully toward a childhood friend she once loved, while Cynthia Gibb co-stars as her divorced mom who can’t afford to send Heather to a good college unless she gets superior test scores.
The Cheating Pact would be better if it had stayed focused on the very real rising epidemic of high school and college cheating, often with the full participation of the students’ parents, but even with its unfortunate detour into camp in its latter scenes, this TV movie is rarely less than entertaining.