Lifetime Review: 'Dating a Sociopath'
A manipulative charmer threatens a teen's fractured family in this tense, strongly casted "Psycho Boyfriend" drama.
Things are already rough enough for 17-year-old Jane Morgan (Hannah Vandenbygaart), as she finds herself caught in the middle of her parents' rocky separation. One night, while being driven home by her father Paul (Scott Gibson), the two are involved in an accident, which leaves Jane with an injured leg. Already on edge due to her parents' separation, Jane is further upset to learn that her father moved out of the house while she was in the hospital—and her mother Sam (Jessalyn Gilsig) has a younger boyfriend in physical trainer Brian (Jon Cor).
Despite Jane's reluctance to accept her mother's new relationship, Sam is hopeful that she can convince her daughter to give Brian a chance. But just as Jane is ready to give her mother's new beau a chance, she begins to suspect Brian is hiding something. After a frightening incident leaves Jane in fear for her life, the teen must work to uncover the truth about Brian before he can put his sinister plan into motion.
Going into the film, a well-versed Lifetime viewer might assume that Dating a Sociopath (originally known as The Sweetheart/The Sweetheart Con on Netflix) will be another penny in the fountain of Lifetime films that follow a similar premise: a recently single woman begins dating a handsome and charming man, unaware that he has evil ulterior motives for being with her, with her teenage/college-aged daughter investigating to uncover the truth. While many of the beats that were seen in films like Room For Murder and My Stepfather's Secret are covered here as well, Dating a Sociopath remains a solidly entertaining Lifetime film that does a bit to keep itself fresh despite having heavily used plot points.
Much of Dating a Sociopath's strength comes from its cast, with Hannah Vandenbygaart bringing an instant likability to Jane. Vandenbygaart not only brings deep emotion to her teenage character as she finds herself dealing with her deteriorating family and health issues, but also allows a strength and proactive side to emerge as Jane works to find out what Brian is hiding. Once it becomes clear to her that Brian has malicious intentions for both her and her mother, Jane becomes fierce in her fight to stop him, being notably clever and forward-thinking as she does battle with Brian. While the final act does have Jane making a few typical Lifetime heroine mistakes to spark the climax into action, she more than makes up for it when the final confrontation comes into play.
Jon Cor makes for a genuinely unsettling antagonist, balancing out Brian's artificial charms with the moments where he shows his hidden arrogance and cruel malice towards anyone who becomes an obstacle to his self-centered goals. Even though Sam's behavior throughout the film will strike many as frustrating, Cor's performance allows the viewer to at least understand why she falls so hard for Brian. Scott Gibson is sympathetic as Paul, selling his arc as a troubled father/husband determined to redeem himself to his family, and Taveeta Szymanowicz makes a strong impression and plays well with Vandenbygaart as Jane's snarky and supportive best friend Karli, who proves instrumental in the third act and has an almost meta moment of calling out one of Jane's third-act plot-required mistakes. Habree Larratt is also easy to like as Jane's little sister Tilly, sharing natural sisterly chemistry with Vandenbygaart and being adorable without becoming an Annoying Younger Sibling trope.
Jessalyn Gilsig, however, does not fare as well as the rest of her cast members. While her performance is as solid as everyone else's, and she allows for Sam to have some genuinely emotional scenes that try to convey her as a mother desperately trying to help her children, Sam is overall a fairly unsympathetic character. From her repeated instances of loudly fighting with Paul (in one case, at the expense of Jane being picked up on time, and in another, within earshot of both her daughters) to her persistence in getting Jane to bond with Brian despite her justifiable reluctance, Sam's behavior works against Gilsig's attempts to bring sympathy to her character and make her come across as selfish and blind to her eldest daughter's needs. This, in addition to Sam being shoved to the background for much of the film, makes it hard to endear the audience to Sam in spite of Gilsig's efforts.
While Sam is a character guaranteed to frustrate viewers, Dating a Sociopath's strong casting, otherwise solid cast of characters, and well-built tension and climax is sure to keep viewers entertained throughout its well-worn storyline. While not the strongest of Lifetime's film catalog, Dating a Sociopath is also far from horrible and will be a treat for anyone who is in the mood for an above-averagely cunning Lifetime teen protagonist.
Score: 7 out of 10 Fitbit trackers.