Lifetime Review: 'Dying For a Daughter'
A live-in nurse is hiding a motherly obsession in this mundane Lifetime drama with a decent cast.
In the wake of a terrifying car accident, Sam and Tom Roberts (Melanie Nelson and Brandon Ray Olive) couldn't be more grateful that their adopted daughter Cassie (Scarlett Roselynn) will recover. In the meantime, though, she'll need a live-in nurse to provide her medical care while her parents are working. To fill that role, Sam settles on one Rebecca Taylor, a pretty and bubbly young woman who seems eager to become Cassie's caregiver.
But what Sam doesn't know about Rebecca is that her real name is Margaret Smith (Brittany Underwood), a nurse at the hospital Cassie was sent to. And Margaret has more in mind for Cassie than simply helping heal her injuries. Because as it turns out, Cassie is the child Margaret gave up for adoption ten years ago--and nothing is going to stop Margaret from reclaiming her daughter.
It's an accepted truth that most Lifetime movies have a formula to them. The best films in the Lifetime catalog find a way to spice things up and keep an admittedly familiar story from feeling stale. In the case of Dying For a Daughter, it suffers from a lack of said spice. While there's enough to keep this obsession drama from becoming a chore to get through, it falls hard enough on the generic side to feel like an oppressively safe retread of similar Lifetime movies about motherhood-crazed women. In the same vein of the similarly themed Mommy is a Murderer, Dying For a Daughter follows the formula so closely that there's hardly any room for fun Lifetimey sparks to fly.
If you've seen any Lifetime movie about a woman who becomes fixated on having someone else's child for her own, you've probably seen every tactic Margaret employs. She even does a few of them in quick succession. She lies her way into becoming Cassie's live-in nurse. She installs hidden cameras to spy on the Roberts family. She begins trying to seduce Tom to drive a wedge between him and Sam. Only one of her tactics feels somewhat original, and in regards to the overall script, there are very few surprises barring one minor deviation during the climax. With its script being as familiar as they come, Dying For a Daughter's subdued sense of action and slow pace are big missteps.
While the cast fares better than their film's mediocre plot, they have their share of stumbles that create different problems. The most surprising of these come from Brittany Underwood, who earlier this year gave an exceptional lead performance for Secrets in the Woods. To her credit, Underwood does well during Margaret's more emotional and/or psychotic moments, even forming chemistry with Scarlett Roselynn to sell Margaret and Cassie's quickly formed bond. But when it comes to masking her character's true colors from Sam and Tom, Underwood gives Killer Dream Home's Eve Mauro a run for her money. In just about every scene Margaret has with Sam or Tom, Underwood delivers her dialogue with an exaggerated "trying-too-hard-to-sound-innocent" cadence. Coupled with some bits of dialogue that really make Margaret's instability visible, you'll likely be yelling at Sam and Tom for not seeing Margaret for the clear-cut nutjob she is from the start. Had Underwood made Margaret as convincingly sweet and innocuous with them as she is when she's alone with Cassie, she would've been a much more convincingly deceptive villainess.
After making her official debut to Lifetime as a bit player in The Wrong Stepmother, Scarlett Roselynn becomes a surprise highlight in her first central Lifetime role. Cassie is perfectly adorable and sweet as played by Roselynn, making it easy to like the young girl and sympathize with her for unknowingly befriending an unstable woman. SPOILER ALERT My one complaint about Cassie is how writer Fred Olen Ray wasted a perfect opportunity to make her as tough as she is cute. When Margaret dropped her gun during her and Sam's final confrontation, I was eagerly anticipating seeing Cassie take the weapon and use it to stop her crazed caregiver--either by shooting her or distracting Margaret long enough for Sam to subdue her. Instead, the less epic route is taken by simply having Cassie slide the gun to Sam to have her deliver the killing shot. It's still a big moment for Cassie, but I feel like what I imagined would've been more impactful. Spoilers Over
Dying For a Daughter also acts as a first for Melanie Nelson: her first lead role in a Lifetime movie. While there are some moments when Nelson's delivery feels awkward, she otherwise gives a sympathetic performance as Sam struggles with trying to be an active mother and her fears about the stability of her marriage. And to counteract Sam's blindness about Margaret's blatant insanity, we're given some scenes in which we do see that Sam is at least uneasy about "Rebecca"--though it doesn't quite make up for her willingness to continue letting her treat Cassie despite her suspicions. Brandon Ray Olive plays well off Nelson as Sam and Tom weather their rough patch, successfully capturing the feeling of a couple that love each other, but still struggle to leave an affair in the past. Sinfidelity's Angela & Greg Harris, take notes.
(On the flip side, though, neither Nelson nor Olive gave a strong first impression during Sam and Tom's first hospital scene after Cassie's accident. Their overwrought delivery of equally overwrought dialogue was memorable in the wrong way--particularly Nelson's)
On his own, Olive gives a likability to Tom--his interactions with Roselynn are bound to make you smile--and makes him sympathetic as he finds himself dealing with Margaret's unwanted advances. But in addition to sharing in Sam's baffling obliviousness (we never see him even consider telling Sam about Margaret's behavior), Tom is absent for a good majority of the film. It leaves Olive with only so much time to make an impression. Lastly, we have Karina Segura as Sam's best friend/co-worker Karen. With Sam and Tom being so unsuspecting of Margaret, Karen's otherwise standard "Genre Savvy BFF" character and Segura's serviceable performance are given a boost.
But for all that the cast brings to the proceedings, Dying For a Daughter's constrictively formulaic story and deliberate pace are enough to diminish their efforts. The stumbles made by the cast bring with them their own damages. Brittany Underwood makes for an enjoyable enough villainess once the film allows her to delve into Margaret's psychosis, and the film provides enough consistent action to be watchable. But being so familiar and having little flavor to make it memorable, Dying For a Daughter isn't likely to make anyone's Lifetime Rewatch list. And given how predictable its story is, I'd say this is a movie best saved for a while-doing-chores watch.
Score: 4 out of 10 double-hearted bracelets.