When Sara (Stefanie Scott) disappears shortly before her 18th birthday, her mother (Joely Fisher) and her older sister (Emily Topper) are naturally concerned. Significantly less concerned is her creepy father, Don (Judd Nelson). Don says that Sara has always been irresponsible and has always placed her own wants and desires above what’s best for her family. Don goes on to say that Sara had long been threatening to go on a road trip and that her plan was to see all 50 states before returning home.
The years pass and Sara never returns home. Don says that it’s obvious that Sara has decided never to return and that it’s best not to even worry about her. When Sara’s mother suggests maybe hiring a private detective, Don angrily says that he doesn’t want to hear another word about it. Sara has made her decision and he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.
And the years continue to pass.
Of course, Don knows exactly where Sara is. He knows that, years ago, he tricked her into the going into the basement and that he then locked her in a secret room. Everyday, he takes her some food. He rewards her if he feels that she’s being good. He punishes her if he feels that she’s still being rebellious. As the years pass, Sara has several children, all fathered by Don. They live in the basement with Sara.
It’s a disturbing story, made all the more disturbing by the fact that it’s based on actual events. For 24 years, Elizabeth Fritzl was trapped, by her father, in a basement. Girl In The Basement is Lifetime’s take on the story. It was directed by Elisabeth Rohm, who has starred in several Lifetime films herself. Girl In The Basement is relentlessly grim, as it should be. It’s not particularly a fun film to watch but it’s impossible not to be inspired by the fact that the Sara, the film’s stand-in for Elizabeth Fritzl, managed to survive, no matter how terrible the situation became. She never gave up. Rohm does a good job of capturing the oppressive claustrophobia of Sara’s existence and Joely Fisher, Emily Tapper, and Stefanie Scott all did good job of showing how the victims of abuse often make excuses for their abusers. Even before he locks Sara in the basement, everyone in the family knows that Don is a monster but they’ve all come to accept it. They’ve all come to feel as if “That’s just Don.” Like most abusers, Don knows how to manipulate and how to gaslight his victims into accepting almost anything.
Judd Nelson does a good job in the role of Don. Unfortunately, we’re so used to seeing Judd Nelson play creeps that it was impossible to be surprised when he turned out to be one in this movie. The casting was a bit too on-the-nose and, whenever Nelson was onscreen, I found myself thinking about all over the other films that I’ve seen that featured Judd Nelson as a villain. That said, Nelson brought enough authenticity to Don’s sudden mood swings that he was convincingly menacing. It’s not just that Don locks his daughter in the basement and abuses her for 24 years while insisting that the family should just forget that she ever existed. It’s that he’s so damn proud of himself after he does it.
Girl in the Basement is well-done Lifetime true crime film, albeit not a particularly pleasant one to watch.