Originally aired 21 Mar 2005
Written by Nancey Silvers
Directed by Peter Werner
Starring Danielle Panabaker, Jane Krakowski, and Mercedes Ruehl
My rating: 1/2 star
Do not watch this message-heavy Lifetime movie about teenage motherhood without a full bottle of Maalox nearby.
The saying “If you’ve got a message, send a telegram” has been credited to both movie producer Samuel Golwyn and playwright Moss Hart. Regardless of who said it, Nancey Silvers (daughter of Phil), the writer of Mom at Sixteen, should have been taking notes.
To say that this made-for-Lifetime film takes a heavy-handed approach to delivering its message is an understatement. The message is conveyed in three (I believe—I don’t want to go back and count) almost identical scenes of guidance counselor Donna Cooper (Jane Krakowski) leading a class on sexual mores and behavior. I may like high school movies, but I don’t watch them to attend class. In case the audience didn’t learn the lesson during these classroom sessions, the movie hammers the message home in a climactic assembly where Jacey Jeffries (Danielle Panabaker), the 16-year-old mom in question, gives a speech to her jaded classmates, who are so profoundly moved by the end of it that they give her a standing ovation.
As if this clunky and hokey method of delivery weren’t vomit-inducing enough, the message is itself emetic. Throughout much of the film, the apparently with-it Ms. Cooper (look—she sits cross-legged on a desk—she must be hip), in the guise of cool rap sessions, spends a lot of time slut-shaming her female students and obsessing about violations of the dress code. She actually tells the girls that they should take responsibility for their outfits triggering sexual thoughts in the minds of the male classmates. The students’ replies seem not so much like the way any human teenagers have ever spoken in the history of time, but like excerpts from a warning pamphlet to parents written by a pearl-clutching leader of the PTA. In general, the students respond that they see so much sex in the media that they feel pressured to have sex. Ah, yes, it’s the big bad media’s fault that teenagers have hormones.
However, the main message of the movie is one of abstinence. Jacey’s long, not-so-profound speech at the end boils down to the idea that high school students are too young to have sex because, if they do, they could wind up with a baby. This message seems right out of the 1950s, not 2005 when this movie aired. Maybe it’s because my sex ed class spent much of its time focusing on STDs (AIDS was still a death sentence when I went to high school), but I expect any modern discussion of the consequences of sex to at least mention the possibility of contracting an STD. Yet, in this movie, the worst thing that could happen to someone who has sex is ending up with a baby. (But babies are still miracles, yadda, yadda, yadda.) The only mention of contraception in the film comes in Jacey’s speech where she mentions that a couple could still wind up with a baby even if they use contraception. I suppose this is technically true, but it leaves students, er, I mean viewers with the impression that contraception is pointless because it isn’t going to work anyway.
Surrounding all this abstinence propaganda is a story, which is less a compelling, coherent narrative than a message delivery system. Having recently had a baby boy named Charlie, Jacey and her sister enroll in a new school to have a fresh start. Their mother, Terry (Mercedes Ruehl), is presenting Charlie as her own. That notion is laughable given that Ruehl, fine actress that she is, was 57 when this movie aired. If I saw Terry carrying around a newborn she claimed to have given birth to, my first words would not have been, “Oh, what a cute baby,” but, instead, “I’m calling Ripley’s!”
Jacey has no clear character arc or consistency. At first she seems apathetic. Then she’s combative for no apparent reason. Out of the blue, she starts popping pills in a subplot that is completely forgotten by the halfway point. And then, all of a sudden, Jacey becomes serious, thoughtful, and sensitive.
The pill-popping isn’t the only conflict that is introduced and then dropped. Jacey’s problems and the resulting family conflict lead her younger sister, Macy (Clare Stone), to rebel. She dyes her hair and goes hitchhiking to the bad part of town. And, then, she’s back to being the perfectly supportive younger sister with no catalyst for her change of attitude. The movie was just done with her rebellion, I guess.
In a parallel story to Jacey’s, Ms. Cooper, the super cool guidance counselor, is struggling to have a baby with her husband, the school swim coach, Bob (Colin Ferguson). (Somewhere in there is a subplot of Jacey joining the swim team, which is dropped around the time of the disappearance of the pill-popping subplot.) Donna and Bob suffer through fruitless fertility treatments. They’d tried adoption in the past, but the birth mother changed her mind. Later in the film, we’re given a flashback of Jacey shortly after Charlie was born changing her mind about adoption and begging her mother to keep the baby, as we know she did. I fully expected Jacey to be revealed as the unknown mother who had led to the Coopers’ disappointment with adoption. The final film doesn’t show that, but, the way the scenes piece together, I suspect the movie might have been filmed that way and someone in the editing room realized that that was too big a coincidence and wisely, if awkwardly, cut it out.
Regardless, the resolution of the story is completely obvious 15 minutes in. For the whole rest of the movie, viewers will have to wait for the characters to catch on to what they already have figured out. Nothing in the film was particularly surprising. There was the obligatory scene where the baby won’t stop crying, and the teenage parent can’t figure out what to do. There was the scene where the school assignment thematically parallels the narrative of the film. There was the scene where the protagonist (usually a female) goes to talk to her ex and finds him awkwardly approaching with another female who is implied to be his new love interest.
The three main performances, those of Panabaker, Krakwoski, and Ruehl (despite her miscasting), aren’t horrible. The actresses are certainly competent enough to deserve a less amateurish script. The effort the three put in led me to give the film a half of a star.
Mom at Sixteen is available on two-DVD set along with the vastly superior Too Young to Be a Dad, which aired on Lifetime a year earlier. That movie proves that making a decent film about teenage pregnancy for Lifetime is possible. The difference between the two films is that Too Young to Be a Dad builds its story around characters while Mom at Sixteen uses its characters as merely a way to deliver a message. Someone should have called Western Union instead.