Lifetime Review: 'My Mom's Darkest Secrets'
Murder complicates a woman's reunion with her mother in this by-the-book mystery elevated by strong performances.
While Ashley Beck Ford (Nia Roam) has enjoyed a good life with her loving adoptive mothers, a part of her has always wanted to know who her birth mother was. So when her boyfriend Ben (Kintaro Akiyama) reveals to her how she can gain access to her adoption records, she's stunned and thrilled at the opportunity to meet her mother. After finding her online and getting into contact, Ashley finds herself face to face with her biological mother, Sara Hillman (Laurie Fortier).
But as she begins trying to get to know her birth mother, Ashley learns that not all is well in Sara's life. Joining Sara for dinner with her husband Trevor (Scott Gibson) and stepdaughter Amy (Hannah Gordon), tensions erupt between Sara and Amy, and also reveals friction brewing between Sara and her husband. When Trevor is found murdered the next day and Sara becomes the prime suspect, Ashley becomes desperate to prove her innocence--despite warnings from her adoptive mothers and Ben to keep her distance. But when Ashley learns some shocking secrets about Sara's past, even she begins to wonder: could her mother really be a killer?
Having been written by frequent Lifetime flyer Christine Conradt, My Mom's Darkest Secrets was originally meant to become a part of Conradt's "Online" series (see these reviews if you don't understand what I mean) under the title The Mother She Found Online. Given that the "Online" aspect of the film is greatly downplayed and the change in direction the film takes in comparison to the other films of the series, though, the title change is understandable.
That direction change I refer to is in reference to the fact that, unlike films like The Boy She Met Online and The Wife He Met Online, the drama of My Mom's Darkest Secrets comes from the character relationships rather than the murder mystery. Rather than the mystery of who killed Trevor and whether or not Sara is responsible, the film puts greater focus on the drama between the characters as Ashley works to uncover what happened. This focus proves to benefit the film, as the solution to the mystery eventually becomes so clear that, if the film had put all its focus on that, the film likely would've folded due to how routine the reveal (and motivation behind the murder) proves to be.
Thankfully, the standard "Young Heroine investigates Murder" Lifetime movie beats are livened up by the well-rounded characters the film follows and the actors playing them. Having previously brought her A-game as a side character in last year's Psycho Prom Queen, Nia Roam proves herself more than capable of handling the spotlight as a protagonist. From her introduction to her final scene, Roam sells Ashley as a naturally warm and compassionate person--making the quick bond she forms with Sara and her zeal in standing up for her when she's suspected of murder believable. When Ashley finds herself looking into Trevor's murder and becoming further entrenched in Sara's dysfunctional family, Roam brings an air of awkward uncertainty to Ashley--a nice touch of realism for a character so often played as being inexplicably skilled at investigating murder. This, along with a scene in which Ashley proves she's not as willfully blind to Sara's sketchy nature than others accuse her of being, makes her a well-rounded character who you instinctively root for.
(Ashley also has a bit of self-awareness to her, as she outright admits to the fact that she has no idea what's doing in her makeshift investigation at one point in response to being accused of "playing Nancy Drew"--a phrase often used when criticizing Lifetime protagonists)
Laurie Fortier brings the same level of strength to Sara Hillman, who is defined throughout much of the film by her ambiguous nature. Fortier and Roam play well off of each other to the point where you might want Sara and Ashley's relationship to survive the chaos surrounding it--but at the same time, Fortier plays Sara in such a deliberately restrained way to where you question if she's really as trustworthy as Ashley believes her to be. SPOILER ALERT Though seasoned Lifetime viewers might be able to tell far ahead of time that Sara is nothing but a big red herring, Fortier's performance is still certain to plant the same seeds of doubt in the viewer's mind that form in Ashley's when she learns about her birth mother's sordid past--with the ultimate reveal adding to the understated sympathetic edge Fortier allows to emerge from Sara. Spoilers Over
The rest of the film's cast rises to the same level as Fortier and Roam, with Hannah Gordon emerging as a highlight due to Amy's transformation from catty stepdaughter to an unlikely ally for Ashley. Ashley's adoptive mothers Marciella and Kelly (a splash of inclusion that is much appreciated after the Hallmark fiasco) are played with warmth by Amanda Martínez and Dawn Lambing, and Kintaro Akiyama is adorable as Ashley's supportive boyfriend Ben. Scott Gibson is also memorably nasty as the ill-fated Trevor, with his slightly pretentious demeanor and borderline emotionally abusive treatment of Sara bringing ambiguity to Sara's later claims that her husband had a good side to him--especially after future plot revelations are made.
WARNING: Spoilers Below
Ash Catherwood is strong as Trevor's brother Michael and the person ultimately responsible for his murder, though the script ultimately makes his character slightly uneven. While his prolonged confession and proclamation of regret to his heartbroken niece is greatly performed by Catherwood, it feels odd to give such an emotional scene to a character previously having been described by his ex-wife Kelsie (in a scene well-performed by Sophie Gendron) as a violent drunk--which brings a sympathetic side to her affair with Trevor that the film doesn't acknowledge. This, on top of his earlier willingness to kill Ashley and potentially his own niece to cover his tracks, makes this sympathy-building scene come a bit out of left field.
Otherwise, though, this admittedly thrill-light climax is made emotionally intense by the combined performances of Roam, Gordon, and Catherwood, with Gordon and Catherwood throwing themselves into Amy's heartbreak and Michael's regret.
Those going into My Mom's Darkest Secrets expecting a film high on plot twists and thrills are likely to be disappointed, and those expecting a puzzling mystery are also not going to find that here. But as a character-driven drama centering around how a murder affects a recently reunited mother and daughter and an already troubled family, the film definitely delivers. With strong performers bringing layers to their characters and a well-crafted plot that keeps the story moving at a consistent pace, My Mom's Darkest Secrets is sure to keep you watching.
Score: 7 out of 10 secret cupboards.