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.
If you’ve been watching BBC America’s gripping new murder mystery Broadchurch, I’m guessing that you’re falling in love with Olivia Colman, who stars as nurturing police detective Ellie Miller. This astonishingly versatile actress seems to be popping up everywhere these days, most recently in the United States on Run, a four-part miniseries that started streaming today on Hulu.
Colman, best known for playing warm, self-effacing characters, is decidedly cast against type here as Carol, an exhausted single mother with mousy brown hair streaked with blonde highlights that are less self-applied than self-inflicted. She shares her cramped council flat in London with her teenage sons, a couple of mouth-breathers who drift from one short-term job to another, filling in their frequent downtime with pot-enhanced video games and beer, pilfered from their mum’s refrigerator.
While her sons are spending their days in varying degrees of incoherence, Carol struggles to pay their rent and board with a soul-killing job at a characterless retail warehouse, where she helps stock the aluminum shelves with items sold by the case.
At the end of the day, Carol is so tired she barely can drag herself to the corner store to pick up more beer and liquor, then head home to cook a meal for her boys, who more often than not turn up their noses and lurch out for a night at the pub.
Things manage to get even worse on My Two Thugs, Carol’s life if it were a TV series, when she finds a bloodstain on one of her son’s clothing and eventually realizes they may well be behind a recent and savage homicide not far from their home. And while her first instinct is to protect her delinquents, their semi-casual dismissal of the crime makes her realize they are heading down the same dangerous path as their father, an abusive lout who walked out on them years ago.
That’s just in Episode One. Which lasts just over 40 minutes.
The concept behind this miniseries is to follow the ripples of an action from its point of occurrence to the seemingly disconnected lives it affects. The points of connection in Run are somewhat tenuous and occasionally not very compelling, but at least two of the episodes are well worth your attention.
In the first episode, we learn that Carol is augmenting her meager warehouse salary by stealing small electronics, ideally cell phones, and fencing them to Ying (Katie Leung, Cho Chang from the Harry Potter movies), an illegal Chinese immigrant who is selling them, and bootleg DVDs, to pay off a gangster. (Stay with me here, folks, I am not making this stuff up). One of those sales inadvertently causes some heartbreaking complications for Richard (Lennie James, AMC’s new Low Winter Sun series), a recovering heroin addict trying to reconnect with his teenage daughter. His travails lead us, in turn, to Kasia (Katharina Schuttler), a young Polish cleaning woman who – forgive me, I do not know the Polish equivalent of quelle surprise – was the girlfriend of the murder victim in Episode One.
Complications ensue, not all of them credible. In fact, as all the social horrors kept piling up – drugs, white slavery, larceny, immigration fraud, black market piracy, et al. – I started to wonder whether I was watching some contemporary variant on Reefer Madness. Stay out of wicked London Town, kids. It gets badder.
That said, I don’t especially regret watching all four episodes this morning, since each had its arresting moments, but if you’re strapped for time, I would recommend checking out Episodes One (Colman) and Three (James), both of which deliver powerhouse performances. The other two episodes aren’t bad, but they do traffic mainly in complex issues that have been tackled elsewhere more effectively, and frankly, I had hoped Episode Four was going to tie up all the narratives in a powerful bow.
Still, I’m glad that Hulu – which keeps getting publicly trumped by its streaming rival Netflix when it comes to high-profile events – remains a go-to service for people who want to explore more of the work of rising stars like Colman that isn’t otherwise available.