Lifetime Review: 'Smuggling in Suburbia'
A teen's desperation for cash leads her into a dangerous business in this entertaining Lifetime romp.
Fresh to a new school, Joanie Whitaker (Monroe Cline) is surprised when she is approached by classmates Anabel and Sharnae (Shelby Yardley and Juliana Destefano), who invite her to a party. While reluctant, Joanie attends and is introduced to Danny Kellog (Bret Green) by her new friends, who claim Danny works for a business that delivers expensive cameras to photographers around the world, with Anabel and Sharnae working for Danny as couriers. Eager for the chance to travel and make easy money, Joanie accepts the offer to join the business, with her first trip having her enjoy a trip to New York and starting a relationship with Danny's business partner Tucker (Cole Reinhardt).
However, Joanie's mother Georgia (Darlene Vogel) expresses concerns about her daughter's new job, with Joanie later discovering them to be warranted after realizing the true nature of Danny's work: he's using the camera equipment to sell diamonds. But soon after Joanie makes her intentions to leave Danny's employ known, her brother Peter (Zander Grable) is stricken with cancer, driving Joanie to return to her illicit job to get the money needed for the operation that will save him. But as Joanie becomes further entangled in Danny's syndicate, she finds that the law is hot on her trail—and it will take the help of her mother to protect Joanie from both the FBI and the increasingly volatile Danny.
Having recently reviewed Am I a Serial Killer? to coincide with this film being Monroe Cline's second time headlining a Lifetime film, I was happy to see that Smuggling in Suburbia took a much less dark route than Cline's initial arrival to the channel. Given that its director is Lifetime regular Doug Campbell and the film puts a fair amount of focus on the extravagant trappings of Joanie's illegal activities, the film's lighter tone is easy to understand. Thankfully, Campbell (as usual) makes sure not to let the upbeat tone go too far and take the film into absurdity, bringing a balance to the film that all viewers can appreciate.
Much of the film's second act follows Joanie as she becomes further entrenched in the diamond smuggling operation, which comes at the risk of becoming stale padding as the viewer waits for things to go pear-shaped on the desperate teen. But as a result of the film's cast and strong writing on the part of Robert Ingraham, these sequences still carry with them an air of tension. Knowing ahead of time that Joanie's illicit activities are going to catch up to her in a big way, and seeing that a violent streak lurks behind Danny's innocuous face and charming demeanor, the viewer is left waiting to see how long it will take for things to blow up in her face.
(Smuggling in Suburbia also deserves credit for utilizing its diamond smuggling-related plot to make statements on the crime's connections to slave labor and terrorism.)
Monroe Cline once again makes for an easy-to-like protagonist, with Joanie's ignorance to the true nature of her new job never going far enough to make her unlikably naive. And by the time she does clue in to what she's doing, she's too entangled in the business to get out and is in a desperate position due to her brother's sudden illness. Cline brings authentic emotion to Joanie's varying emotions regarding her predicament, which includes an arc where Joanie admits to having become hooked on the thrill of making easy money, in spite of her reservations on how she was making it, and was responsible for being seduced into Danny's syndicate.
The film is ultimately stolen, however, by Bret Green's excellent performance as Danny; a role that is sure to surprise those who previously knew Green for his portrayal of the squeaky-clean Preston Wainwright in CBS' The Inspectors. As Danny, Green throws himself into the role of an outwardly charismatic businessman with a hidden unstable darkness to him, with Green's boyishly looks allowing for a further juxtaposition to exist. As mentioned before, Danny's underlying darkness propels much of the film's tension, and Green absolutely nails both the charming side of his character and the hidden violent side that, when it finally comes to the surface, does so in genuinely shocking ways.
Darlene Vogel is equally as compelling as Cline as Joanie's mother Georgia, becoming something of an Audience Surrogate as she brings up early questions about her daughter's suspicious new job and later blasting her for her (from her perspective) misguided efforts to protect Tucker as the police close in on Danny's business. Zander Grable is sweet enough as Peter, and both Shelby Yardley and Juliana Destefano do well as Danny's cohorts Annabel and Sharnae, with Yardley in particular balancing out Annabel's devious and self-centered colors with her moments of genuine care for her friends. Unfortunately, the character arc laid out for Annabel following SPOILER ALERT Danny's merciless murder of Sharnae Spoilers Over is forgotten almost as soon as it gets introduced, leaving Annabel's character unnecessarily (and a bit frustratingly) uneven.
Speaking of flaws in characterization, a more notable one comes in the form of Joanie and Tucker's relationship. Cole Reinhardt is charming as Tucker, and he and Cline do as much as they can to give the relationship between their characters weight (the way their relationship wraps up in the end has an emotional punch to it thanks to Cline's delivery). But as a whole, Joanie and Tucker's relationship feels rushed and incomplete, and with much of their development as a couple seemingly taking place off-screen, scenes of them detailing their future together and Joanie declaring a deep love for Tucker come off as jarring and abrupt. This becomes a damaging liability by the film's third act, as the conflict that threatens to tear Joanie and Tucker apart loses its bite when the relationship we're supposed to be rooting for hasn't been given enough weight.
(Also, in one final nitpick, even taking into account that made-for-TV films are likely not being made on a large budget, the montage scenes of Joanie, Annabel, and Sharnae taking group photos in the various locales they visit are notably awful. They're so flat, you would think they just used Photoshopped pictures of the girls onto images they found from Google)
Overall, thanks to a combination of solid acting and a well-paced plot, Smuggling in Suburbia makes for a fun Lifetime teen thriller that manages to be tense, even as the film takes some time to indulge in lighter moments. The film keeps both of the moods it establishes for itself balanced, making for a viewing experience that is sure to keep its audience both entertained and on the edge of their seats.
Score: 8 out of 10 burritos with jalapenos.