Lifetime Review: 'Is My Daughter Really Dead?'
Intensity and strong performances make up for a flawed mystery in this engaging Lifetime drama.
Soon after kicking him out of the house, artist Olivia Whitmore (Zoe McLellan) is shocked to learn that her estranged husband Layne (Matthew Pohlkamp) was killed in a car accident. The news hits Olivia and Layne's 17-year-old daughter Hannah (Stevie Lynn Jones) even harder, causing her to resent her mother for indirectly causing Layne's death and isolating herself in her bedroom. Some months later, Olivia busies herself with her gallery opening and finds comfort in the form of her close friend Jack (Mike Erwin) returning to town and her new neighbor Mary (Stephanie Charles).
When Mary offers to let the Whitmores join her and her daughter Sydney (Ryan Madison) on a camping trip, Olivia declines in order to work her gallery and allows Hannah to join them for the trip. But when they return, Olivia is horrified to learn that not only is Hannah not with Mary and Sydney, but both of them claim to have never ever met Hannah. Olivia later gets hit with another bombshell when she attempts to report Hannah as missing: Hannah supposedly died in the same accident that killed Layne. Has Olivia really lost her mind to her grief--or is something far more sinister transpiring around her?
Similar to the recently premiered He's Out to Get You, Is My Daughter Really Dead? (alternate titles include Gaslit and Fatal Deceit) centers around a woman attempting to locate a missing family member--despite everyone around her claiming she's delusional. The film also shares the same primary strength and weakness of He's Out to Get You: the strength of a strong cast, and the weakness of having a bungled mystery. Thankfully, the mystery fumbles in Is My Daughter Really Dead? are greatly diminished in comparison to the severely botched-in-logic mystery of He's Out to Get You, and the cast more than makes up for where the story is weak with how much they throw themselves into their characters.
The unquestionable gem of the cast would be Zoe McLellan, who is an emotional marvel as Olivia Whitmore. Prior to Hannah's disappearance, McLellan brings a strength and resolve to Olivia in regards to Layne, her art career, and her efforts to help her grieving daughter--a resolve that lends a tragic edge to her later plunge into doubt regarding her sanity. It's after Hannah is gone, however, that McLellan truly throws herself into Olivia, playing the range of emotions Olivia feels as she struggles to comprehend what is happening to her with almost painstaking realism. Aiding McLellan's performance is some excellent cinematography courtesy of Christopher James Jordan, which uses slow-motion and close-ups to visually capture the desperation and fear that races through Olivia's mind as she finds herself in a parent's worst nightmare magnified.
Stevie Lynn Jones plays well off of McLellan as grief-stricken teen Hannah, who despite being set up as a typical bratty teen daughter, is kept grounded by Jones' portrayal of her. While Hannah does have moments of giving her mother an unnecessarily hard time regarding her divorce and Layne's death, Jones plays these moments in a way that shows they're motivated not by a true desire to lash out, but by the grief that has left Hannah feeling depressed and unable to communicate her feelings. Mike Erwin also strikes a chemistry with McLellan as her friend Jack, with their chemistry being further displayed as the film's events make Jack the only trustworthy person Olivia has on her side.
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead
With the film's plot having been seen on Lifetime many times before in addition to their actors' performances, the reveal that Mary, officer Bruce Chambers, and his therapist wife Lisa likely isn't one that will be surprising. And the early reveal that Layne's body was never recovered from the accident is likely to be a dead giveaway to many that he faked his death and is the mastermind behind the plot against Olivia. While the latter reveal comes off as the film tipping its hand way too early, the former actually works to the film's intense mood.
With the foreknowledge that Olivia is right about Hannah and that almost everyone around her is trying to manipulate her into believing a lie, Is My Daughter Really Dead? keeps you in suspense as you see Olivia begin to fall for everyone's manipulations before snapping back to reality. Performance-wise, Stephanie Charles is the most entertaining of the secondary cast once Mary's true nature comes to the surface, with Charles playing Mary's veneer of innocence so convincingly that even those who had her villainous reveal spoiled by Lifetime's promos might find themselves wanting to believe her. Samantha Colburn is chilling as the cold and calculated Lisa, and Chris Dougherty stands out for bringing moral ambiguity to Bruce, with Bruce's final moments of the film giving off the impression that he's not as cold-blooded or as committed to their plot as his wife and best friend.
In a departure from his roles in My Daughter's Ransom and The Doctor Will Kill You Now, Matthew Pohlkamp brings an understated menace to Layne that's juxtaposed against the more overt villainy displayed by Mary and Lisa. With his backstory revealing Layne as a possessive and emotionally abusive husband, Pohlkamp displays those characteristics in a realistically subdued manner that makes his all the more unnerving as a villain. Even when he's attempting to rescue Hannah from Mary's murderous clutches, it comes with a sense that he's acting from a place of self-preservation rather than one of genuine paternal fear, given how an earlier scene displayed how even Hannah wasn't immune from Layne's abusive tendencies. With Pohlkamp and Charles bringing such palpable malice and cruelty to their characters, their sudden deaths at the hands of their henchman is all the more satisfying.
When compared to the mystery flaws found within He's Out to Get You, Is My Daughter Really Dead? is a vast improvement of the film that preceded it by fourteen days. To make up for the predictable nature of the film's mystery, Is My Daughter Really Dead? offers a magnificent lead heroine, equally strong secondary characters, an intense mood amplified by cinematography, and an ending that ties up all the film's loose ends in a satisfying and somewhat realistic way. If you're willing to accept the film's mystery playing out almost precisely the way you imagine it will, you're in for an intense thriller that will have you glued to your screen.
Score: 9 out of 10 printed news articles.
About the Creator
Aspiring writer and film lover: Lifetime, Hallmark, indie, and anything else that strikes my interest. He/him.
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