Lifetime Film Review: Undercover Cheerleader (dir by Danny J. Boyle)

Autumn (Kayla Wallace) has just transferred to a new high school and she has a decision to make.  At her old school, Autumn was the star of the dance team but it turns out that this new school doesn’t have a dance program.  Instead, it appears that Autumn is going to have to settle for either becoming a cheerleader or working on the school paper.

It’s a difficult decision and it was one to which I could automatically relate.  When I was in high school, I was constantly told that I should follow in my sister’s footsteps and try out for cheerleader.  I was also told that, with my big vocabulary and love of gratuitous sarcasm, I would be a natural for the school paper.  Myself, I didn’t want to be a cheerleader because I wanted to establish my own identity as opposed to just following in my sister’s footsteps.  At the same time, I didn’t want to join the paper because, as much as I love to write, I hate being edited.  I ultimately decided to do neither.  However, Autumn apparently has a bit more initiative than I did at that age because she decides to do both!

That’s right.  Autumn is going to try out for the squad and then she’s going to write anonymous articles about her experience for the newspaper!  She’s going to be an …. UNDERCOVER CHEERLEADER!

Autumn makes the squad and, not surprisingly, she discovers that there’s a lot to write about.  For instance, it turns out that that high school’s cheerleading coach is kind of a fascist who forces the cheerleaders to eat laxatives and who takes an immediate and irrational dislike to the only black girl on the squad.  The coach is also obsessed with controlling every aspect of her cheerleaders’s lives and it’s obvious that she’s less concerned with their well-being than she is with winning another championship.  She even forces one cheerleader to seriously injure herself for no apparent reason.

When Autumn’s first article comes out, the entire school is like, “Ewwwww!  Laxatives!?”  Everyone on the squad is trying to figure out who wrote the article.  Why they didn’t automatically suspect Autumn, who they already know is friends with the paper’s editor, I’m not sure.  While the article does get the coach in trouble, it also leads to a cheerleader power struggle and ultimately a murder.  This is a Lifetime movie, after all.

A lot happens in Undercover Cheerleader.  In fact, you could probably argue that too much happens in the movie.  It takes forever to get to that murder, which is unusual for a Lifetime film.  But no matter!  Undercover Cheerleader is a well-acted film and one that even has a few unexpected moments of wit.  Autumn is an interesting character because, even as she writing articles about how much it sucks to be a cheerleader, she’s also discovering that she likes the other members of the squad.  Kayla Wallace does a great job of capturing Autumn’s conflicted emotions about her assignment and she’s well-matched by Maddie Phillips and Ryan Grantham, who play two cynical student journalists.

If you’re a fan of Lifetime films, you should enjoy Undercover Cheerleader. 

Lifetime Film Review: My Evil Stepdad (dir by Stacia Crawford)


As you can tell from looking at the picture above, the stepdad in My Evil Stepdad is even more evil and pervy and shady than the usual Lifetime evil stepdad.  Lifetime, of course, has a long and proud tradition of airing films about dangerous stepparents.  They all usually seem to follow the same basic plot.  A widow (and it’s almost always a widow as opposed to someone who has just gone through a divorce) meets a seemingly charming man who quickly marries her.  Her daughter is suspicious of her new stepfather.  Around the halfway mark, the stepfather commits a murder, just in case we were still entertaining any doubts about whether or not he’s a really bad guy.  Eventually, the daughter does a Google search and discovers that her new stepfather has either changed his name or is lying about some other important detail from his past.  Eventually, the stepfather is either killed or taken off to prison, the widow realizes that there’s nothing wrong with being single, and the daughter is proven correct.  The most important thing, of course, is that everything returns to normal at the end of the film.

In My Evil Stepdad, the widow is Tracy (played by Jennifer Lafluer).  Tracy has still not fully gotten over the death of her husband and, while she’s open to dating again, she has a strong aversion to Tinder and almost anything else that came into existence after 2011.  Her daughter is Ashley (Addy Stafford), who has inherited her father’s love of photography and who is looking forward to attending college in the fall.  And then, finally, the evil stepdad of the title is Jared (Chris Johnson), who seems to be nice and trustworthy and whose claim that he’s started a wind chime business is kind of charming as long as you don’t think about it too much.

When Jared comes across an online dating profile that Ashley set up for Tracy, he quickly manages to make his way into Tracy’s life.  Of course, he gets a little bit of help from Ashley who, unfortunately, doesn’t realize that he’s totally evil until after he’s already married Tracy.  It’s after the wedding that Jared starts to push Ashley out of her mother’s life.  Not only does he pressure her to take out a student loan to help pay for college but he also takes over her photography studio, changing the locks and turning it into his mancave.  Even worse, he tells Ashley that if she needs any money, she’ll have to ask him for it.  He even says that he will be her “sugar daddy.”  Like seriously, ewwww!

While all of this is going on, Tracy continues to defend Jared even as everyone else in her life tells her that he’s kind of a jerk.  Of course, every since the wedding, Tracy has been feeling ill.  Hmmmm …. could Jared possible have something to do with that?

In many ways, My Evil Stepdad is a standard evil stepparent film but it manages to go through all of the expected paces with a certain panache.  Director Stacia Crawford keeps the action moving at a nice pace and Abby Stafford and Jennifer Lafluer are believable as daughter-and-mother.  Chris Johnson is wonderfully sleazy in the role of Jared and the film also features a good comedic turn from Belmont Cameli in the role of Ashley’s best friend.  If you like Lifetime films, you’ll enjoy My Evil Stepdad.

Lifetime Film Review: The Wrong Cheerleader (dir by David DeCoteau)

“You messed with the wrong cheerleader!” Vivica A. Fox announced towards the end of Lifetime’s The Wrong Cheerleader.

“Hell yeah, he did!” I shouted back at the television.

Now, one reason why I yelled that response is because Vivica A. Fox is a totally badass.  She has appeared in almost every installment of Lifetime’s “Wrong” franchise and she always plays a no-nonsense authority figure that no one in their right mind would want to mess with.  When Vivica A. Fox gives you advice, you better listen.  And when she gets mad at you, you better run because she does not mess around!

The other reason I cheered was because she was telling off one of the most unsympathetic and evil abusers to ever appear in a Lifetime film.  After spending two hours watching this guy gaslight and threaten his girlfriend, I was ready for Vivica to show up and verbally kick his ass and she did not disappoint.

Fox plays Coach Flynn in The Wrong Cheerleader.  She’s the cheerleading coach at the local high school and it’s a job that she takes very seriously.  As she explains to a new recruit, being a part of the squad means that you’re a part of a family.  When a prospective cheerleader says that she understands what Flynn means, the Coach tells her that she won’t be capable of understanding until she actually experiences it for herself.  And I’m just going to say that I probably would have been scared to death of Coach Flynn in high school because she would have taken one look at me and probably told me to drop the attitude, stop showing so much skin, and behave like a responsible young lady.  And I probably would have done it too because, seriously, you don’t want Coach Flynn mad at you.

Coach Flynn is concerned about her newest cheerleader, Becky (Cristine Prosperi).  Becky is dating Rob (David Meza) and, from the minute he first shows up at school, it’ obvious that Rob has issues.  Along with having a violent temper, Rob is a relentless manipulator, the type of guy who tells Becky that everything he does wrong is because of how much he loves her.  When he gets into a fight, he tells Becky that it was because he was defending her and that it’s actually her fault because she was wearing her cheerleading uniform.  If Becky so much as looks in the direction of another guy, Rob loses his temper.  Rob, of course, has a hundred excuses for his behavior, most of them having to do with his dysfunctional family life.  Everyone can see through Rob.  Everyone, it seems, but Becky.

If you’re looking for an expose into the sordid world of high school cheerleading, you’ll probably be disappointed with The Wrong Cheerleader.  To be honest, Coach Flynn could have been a soccer coach and Becky a goalie without changing the film’s plot.  (Though “You messed with the wrong goalie!,” doesn’t have as much of a ring to it as “You messed with the wrong cheerleader!”)  But no matter.  The film does a pretty good job of revealing the techniques that an abuser will use to maintain control over the woman that he’s abusing.  Anyone who has ever been in a toxic relationship will recognize exactly what Rob is doing.  The film also makes the very important point that if you do witness abuse, you need to say something.  Just shrugging away the problem or hoping that things will somehow get better is not a solution.

For those of us who remember her as the always quirky Imogen on Degrassi, it’s interesting to see Cristine Prosperi playing a far more conventional character in this film but she does a good job in the role and she still looks young enough to pass for a high school student.  (The same could not be said of some of her classmates.)  David Meza does a good job playing up his character’s manipulative nature and, of course, Vivica A. Fox is a total badass as Coach Flynn.

The Wrong Cheerleader isn’t quite as over-the-top as most Lifetime cheerleading films but it has a good and heartfelt message and that’s definitely worth something.

Lifetime Film Review: Identity Theft Of A Cheerleader (dir by Christie Will Wolf)

Poor Vicky Patterson!

All she wants is …. well, actually she wants a lot but none of it is really too much to ask.  Vicky (pictured above and played by Maiara Walsh) wants to grow up to lead a successful life, like the life led by her wealthy and demanding mother (Gail O’Grady).  She wants to be one of the popular girls at school.  She wants to date a star athlete and she wants to be the girl who throws the legendary party that all of her classmates will be talking about for years after they graduate.  She wants to be the captain of her high school’s cheerleading squad.  Not the co-captain or anything like that.  No, she wants to be the captain.

The only problem is that Vicky is 31 years old and she dropped out of high school a long time ago.  In fact, she dropped out after it became obvious that she would never make the squad, the popular girls would never accept her, and she’d never be able to make her mother happy.  So, now, Vicky is working in a dead-end job at an outlet store and supporting her good-for-nothing boyfriend, Darren (Matty Finochio).  When Vicky talks about going back to night school and maybe even trying to earn a degree, her mother informs her that she’s too old to have any hope of successfully breaking into any worthwhile industry.  In short, Vicky’s life is pretty much over.

However, Caitlyn’s life has just begun!  Caitlyn is what Vicky starts calling herself after she steals the identity of one of her co-workers.  As Caitlyn, Vicky enrolls herself at the local high school.  She tells all of her new classmates that she’s 18 years old and that she and her mom have just moved to town.  As Caitlyn, Vicky finally makes the cheerleading squad and gets to experience the life about which she’s spent the past decade dreaming.  Suddenly, she’s hanging out with the popular crowd.  She’s got an athletic boyfriend.  She’s got a future to which she can actually look forward!

Of course, there are some problems.  No solution is ever perfect.  For one thing, Darren wants to know why his girlfriend is suddenly dressing like a teenager and spending so much time out of the apartment.  For another thing, another girl is named captain of the squad so Vicky has to arrange for her to break her ankle.  (Vegetable oil has so many uses.)  There’s also the fact that one of her fellow cheerleaders, Heather (Karis Cameron), is suspicious that Vicky may not be who she claims to be.  This is a Lifetime film, so you can probably guess that this is going to lead to murder and attempted murder.  But seriously, what else could Vicky do?  Go back to working at Big Lots?

In the long and proud history of Lifetime cheerleading films, Identity Theft Of A Cheerleader is perhaps the best yet.  I don’t say this lightly because there’s been some great Lifetime cheerleading films.  But what sets Identity Theft Of A Cheerleader apart from all the others is the wonderfully unhinged — yet, at times, oddly sympathetic — performance of Maiara Walsh.  As played by Walsh, Vicky is both dangerous and relatable.  I don’t think there’s anyone alive who hasn’t, at some point, wished for a chance to relive a year from their past and make some different choices, if just for the opportunity to see what would happen.  Identity Theft Of A Cheerleader embraces the melodrama as all good Lifetime film should but, at the same time, it also taps into a very real human emotion.  Who hasn’t asked “What if?”

Despite the rather unwieldy title, Identity Theft Of A Cheerleader is an entertaining and undeniably enjoyable Lifetime film.  Director Christie Will Wolf and screenwriter  Barbara Kymlicka craft a fun melodrama that’s rooted just enough in reality to stick with you even after the final cheer.

Lifetime Film Review: The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders (dir by Peter Sullivan)

When I first started high school, quite a few people told me that I needed to follow my sister Erin’s example and try out for cheerleader and I have to admit that I was occasionally tempted to do so.  I never did because I already had ballet and drama club, I wanted to establish my own identity, and Erin told me that being cheerleader meant that I had to be perky all the time and, quite frankly, I’ve always needed my time to sulk.  Add to that, I’ve always been a natural contrarian so my usual response to several people telling me that I need to do something is to do the exact opposite.  (That was perhaps even more true in high school than it is today.)

On the one hand, I can honestly say that I have never regretted not trying out for cheerleading.  On the other hand, it’s only natural to occasionally wonder, “What if?” Would I have been the nice, responsible cheerleader like the type that Kirsten Dunst played in Bring It On?  Would I have been the bitchy cheerleader who cruelly maintained the school’s status quo?  Or would I have been the one trying to make fetch happen?  Personally, I like to think that I would have been the cheerleader who dressed in all black and who came up with snarky cheers that sarcastically commented on modern culture.

That question of “What If?” is one of the reasons why I always make sure to catch all of the Lifetime cheerleading films.  The other reason is that I enjoy making Erin watch them with me so I can ask her if they’re a realistic depiction of what it was like to be a cheerleader.  For instance, earlier today, I made Erin watch The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders with me and I asked her, “Is this an accurate portrayal of cheerleading?”

“Maybe if you were a cheerleader in Hell,” she replied.

In The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders, Savannah May plays Ava.  Ava and her mother, Candice (Denise Richards), have just moved to a new town and that means that Ava is going to be starting at a new high school.  With her mother’s very strong (some might say too strong) encouragement, Ava tries out for cheerleading and makes the squad.  Soon, Ava is not only a hit with the other cheerleaders but she’s also on her way to becoming the most popular girl at school!  That doesn’t sit well with Katrina (Alexandria DeBerry), the cheer captain and homecoming queen who is all about three things: trying to control everyone’s lives, hazing the Hell out of all the new recruits, and being more popular than everyone else.  When Ava makes it clear that she’s going to date whoever she wants (even if he isn’t a starter on the football team) and that she’s not really that happy with all the hazing either, Katrina plots to take down her only potential rival.

There’s not a subtle moment to be found in The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders, which is why it’s perhaps the best Lifetime cheerleader film ever made.  From the minute that Katrina gives Ava the side eye, we know that we’re in store for an epic battle between two differing philosophies of high school popularity, with Ava representing the way we wish things could be while Katrina represents what we secretly suspect the world to be like.  The film’s signature scene is perhaps the moment when Katrina and Ava get into an impromptu dance-off on the football field.  It’s so thoroughly and unashamedly over-the-top that it’s also more than a little brilliant.

I mean, seriously, this is a Lifetime cheerleader film.  You don’t watch a film like this for a subtlety.  You watch a film like this for scenes of Katrina live-streaming a hazing and forcing her rival to stand on edge of the roof of the school.  We watch a film like this for the moment that the entire high school breaks into applause as they watch one of their classmates get led away in handcuffs.  Savannah May and Alexandria DeBerry are well-cast as the rival cheerleaders and DeBerry especially deserves credit for making Katrina the most joyfully evil cheerleader in recent memory.

Whether it’s an accurate portrayal of high school cheerleading or not, The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders is an undeniably entertaining Lifetime film.  It fully embraces the melodrama and we’re all better for it.

Lifetime Film Review: V.C. Andrews’ Fallen Hearts (dir by Jason Priestley)

About 12 minutes into Fallen Hearts, the perpetually aggrieved Heaven (Annalise Basso) goes to the local circus so she can taunt her stepfather, Luke (Chris William Martin), over the fact that 1) Heaven looks exactly like her mother, Angel and 2) Angel’s dead.

Upon arriving at the circus, Heaven runs into her stepbrother, Tom (Matthew Nelson-Mahood), but it takes her a while to recognize him because he’s wearing a big red clown nose.  It’s not until he takes the nose off that she recognizes Tom and then asks him why he’s dressed up like a clown.  It turns out that Tom is a clown now!  I guess he got a promotion.  Tom then asks why Heaven has made herself up to look exactly like Angel….

Unfortunately, Luke has already spotted Heaven and, apparently not understanding how death works, becomes convinced that Angel has returned to life and is standing in the middle of a low-rent circus in West Virginia.  Unfortunately, Luke is apparently now a lion tamer and he’s so shocked to see his dead wife that he loses track of his lion.

And, of course, the lion promptly kills Tom.  Would the lion have spared Tom if he hadn’t removed his red clown nose?  We may never know.

Now, of course, everyone in the film treats this as being a great tragedy.  Strangely enough, no one blames Heaven, even though none of this would have happened if not for the Heaven’s apparent obsession with mentally tormenting everyone from her past.  But I have to admit that I laughed out loud as soon as I saw that lion in the background because I knew there was no way the scene was going to end without Tom getting pounced on….

And really, that’s the type of film that Fallen Hearts is.  It’s the third film in Lifetime’s adaptation of V.C. Andrews’s Casteel Saga (the previous two were Heaven and Dark Angel) and, from the minute that lion pounces at Tom, everyone should know better than to take anything that happens too seriously.  Fallen Hearts somehow manages to be even more melodramatic than the first two films and, as directed by Jason Priestley, Fallen Hearts appears to be fully in on the joke.

Priestley not only directs but he also appears in the film, once again playing Tony Tatterton.  Tony is not only Heaven’s unacknowledged father but he’s also her stepgrandfather as well.  When Heaven finally ends up marrying Logan Stonewall (James Rittinger), Tony invites them to come up to Massachusetts for their honeymoon.  Heaven says no but Logan, being a simple boy from the West Virginia hills, is all about family.  While up in Massachusetts, Heaven discover that her first husband, Troy (Jason Cermak), isn’t dead after all.  He’s just been in hiding for the past five years, mostly because, after the wedding, he discovered that he was also Heaven’s uncle and that type of relationship just isn’t right.  Of course, that doesn’t stop Troy and Heaven from having sex after they run into each other while wandering around a hedge maze.  Troy vanishes the morning afterward but soon, Heaven discovers she’s pregnant.  Is the baby Troy’s or Logan’s?

Actually, speaking of babies, Heaven’s trashy and bitter sister, Fanny (Jessica Clement, stealing the entire damn movie) is also pregnant!  And it turns out that Fanny’s been having an affair with Logan so he might be the father.  Then again, there’s also scene where the town’s preacher looks at Fanny and shouts, “WHORE!,” so who knows for sure.  The one thing we do know for sure is that all of this is going to lead to two pregnant sisters facing off in a court room.  These things always do.

Anyway, Fallen Hearts is not a film that’s really meant to be taken seriously and, as I said before, the film itself is obviously in one the joke.  The melodrama is turned up to 11 and the actors tear through the overripe dialogue like a moonshiner trying to outrun the cops.  Annalise Basso again manages to keep things somewhat grounded as Heaven but the film is totally dominated by Jessica Clement, who brings the wonderfully trashy Fanny to vivid life.  The townsfolk and the hillfolk might not think much of Fanny but she keeps Fallen Hearts beating.

The fourth part of the Casteel Saga, Gates of Paradise, will air on Lifetime next Saturday.

Lifetime Film Review: V.C. Andrews’ Dark Angel (dir by Paul Shapiro)

When we last saw Heaven Casteel (Annalise Basso), she was boarding a bus so that she could leave the backwoods of West Virginia and hopefully live with her mother’s wealthy family in Boston, Massachusetts.

Dark Angel picks up where Heaven left off, with Heaven arriving at stately and creepy Farthinggale Manor and discovering that the rich are just as fucked up as the poor.  She’s greeted by her stepgrandfather, Tony Tatterton (Jason Priestly), who tries to come across as being friendly but quickly reveals himself to be cold and manipulative.  She also meets her grandmother, Jillian (Kelly Rutherford).  Jillian always has a drink in her hand and worries that Heaven will leave “hill grime” around the house.  Jillian doesn’t want Heaven to stay at the house for too long but Tony manages to change her mind.  Tony tells Heaven that, in order to thank him for his generosity, she’ll basically have to do everything that he says.

For instance, Tony tells Heaven that she is, under no circumstances, to enter the estate’s hedge maze.  (Rich people always have a hedge maze.)  So, of course, Heaven does just that.  She gets lost but eventually, she comes across a small house sitting in the middle of the maze.  Inside the house, a handsome man (played by Jason Cermak) carefully crafts a doll’s face.’

“Excuse me, sir,” Heaven says, “I got lost in your hedge maze!”

“You must be Heaven,” the man replies.

The man it turns out is Troy Tatterton, Tony’s younger brother.  Troy suffers from depression and he’s been exiled to the maze because Jillian can’t stand the sound of dolls be made.  Troy and Heaven soon find themselves falling in love, despite Tony’s demand that Heaven stay out of the maze.

Tony also demands that Heaven stop writing to her family but, of course, Heaven continues to try to reach out to them.  Her siblings aren’t doing quite as well as Heaven.  For instance, one sister is living in a trailer.  Her brother is working at a circus.  And her two youngest siblings are living in Washington, D.C, where they’re undoubtedly surrounded by politicians and interns.  AGCK!  It’s a fate worse than spending the rest of your life brewing moonshine in the hills.

And, while dealing with all of this, Heaven is also trying to graduate from high school and hopefully get into an Ivy League college!  She wants to study literature.  At one point, she explains that her favorite writer is Shakespeare but that she also really loves Fitzgerald.  She says that Fitzgerland “saved the best for last,” with Tender Is The Night.  It was at this point that I yelled, “HIS LAST NOVEL WAS THE LAST TYCOON!” and threw a shoe at the TV. 

Complicating matters even further is the fact that her old backwoods boyfriend, Logan (James Rittinger), is attending college in Boston.  Logan says that he doesn’t want anything to do with Heaven because he’s still angry over everything that happened during the previous movie but it’s pretty obvious that he’s still in love with her.

And then….

Well, listen — a lot happens in Dark Angel.  As opposed to Heaven, Dark Angel is full of twists and turns.  Everyone’s got a deep, dark secret and, at time, it gets a bit overwhelming trying to keep track of it all.  Then again, that’s what makes a film like this fun.  It’s just so over-the-top and implausible that you really can’t help but enjoy watching it all play out.  Every few minutes, someone else is popping up and either taunting Heaven for being from the hills or revealing that they’re actually one of her relatives.  Seriously, this is one messed up family.  The good thing is that Dark Angel seems to be aware of how silly all of the melodrama occasionally is.  The other good thing about Dark Angel is that it mostly involves rich people instead of poor people, which means that, as opposed to the first film, everyone gets to wear nice clothes.

Annalise Basso again makes all of us redheads proud in the role of Heaven but the film is really stolen by Jason Priestley, who appears to be having the time of his life playing the ambiguously evil Tony.  Kelly Rutherford is a bit underused as Jillian but she does get one good scene towards the end of the film and she makes for a stylish drunk.

The sequel to Dark Angel, Fallen Hearts, will air on Lifetime later tonight and hopefully, I’ll have a review of it up on Sunday.  And if I don’t, I guess you’ll just have to spank me like a character in a V.C. Andrews novel….