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Lifetime Review: 'Secrets on Sorority Row'

A decades-old cover-up comes back to haunt Kristi Murdock in an uneven but fun Lifetime college thriller.

By Trevor WellsPublished about a year ago 8 min read
5

On the surface, Epsilon Theta would appear to be an ordinary sorority residing in an idyllic university. But Michelle Winter (Kristi Murdock), a former Theta member and current university professor, knows about the sorority's darkest secret. 22 years ago, Michelle was pledging with her troubled friend Kelly Oberman (Holly Tatem) when a hazing ritual ended in Kelly drunkenly falling down the basement stairs to her death. Fearful that the truth of the incident would ruin their lives, Michelle and the other three girls present claimed that Kelly got drunk herself and vowed to keep what really happened a secret.

So when Michelle receives a threatening letter demanding she tell the truth, she's scared beyond belief. Her fear is increased when she learns that not only have her other sorority sisters received similar letters, but her daughter Quinn (Kate Edmonds) is pledging to join Epsilon Theta. Not wanting her past or her current stalker to hurt Quinn, Michelle works with her old friends to figure out who's behind the threats. But with her tormentor making it clear they're willing to resort to violence to have their revenge, will Michelle's college secret cost her what she loves most?

Ironically befitting a film centering around college, Secrets on Sorority Row has something of an identity crisis. There are a few scattered moments where it appears the movie is going for a tongue-in-cheek campy vibe. There are a few comedically-toned bits involving the new crop of sorority girls. A random nightmare sequence stands out as more ridiculous than scary thanks to the wild CGI effects. Michelle's worry about Quinn joining Epsilon Theta culminates in Michelle storming the sorority house to launch into a manic rant. And lastly, the climax is capped off with an out-of-nowhere punk song that clashes with the mood of the scenes preceding it. While many of these moments are entertaining, they still stick out as a little bizarre in light of the movie's general tone. Speaking of entertainment, though, Secrets on Sorority Row still makes for an enjoyable Lifetime college thriller. While the pacing has issues and the mystery aspect is flawed, a steady supply of drama and a capable cast make up for where this MarVista flick doesn't make the grade.

To get the biggest negatives out of the way first, the plotting of Secrets on Sorority Row is on the inconsistent side. It's not long into the movie before Michelle gets the first letter, but after that, the story meanders a little. Time is divided between Michelle and her friends trying to figure out who's threatening them and Quinn pledging Epsilon Theta and growing estranged from her concerned mother. It's a slow progression and one that's not helped by how subdued most of the stalker's actions are. There's a valid explanation for this, but it doesn't change how unengaging their plan of attack is from a storytelling standpoint. Plus, thanks to some unsubtle camerawork, it shouldn't take a Lifetime connoisseur to pinpoint who the culprit is. Thankfully, the climax of Secrets on Sorority Row offers a second revelation that has more potential to take viewers by surprise. It's also an overall explosive finale where the key players give their best performances as the stakes are raised and emotions run high.

Like I said before, the acting proves to be a stabilizing force that carries this film through its slower stretches. Even the lesser members of the cast and the ones playing rough-around-the-edges characters bring something to the proceedings. Michelle Winter is one such character, namely due to how she reacts to Quinn deciding to pledge her old sorority. Even taking into consideration her alarming predicament, Michelle's attitude quickly got under my skin. She expresses callous shock at Quinn "changing herself" for Epsilon Theta, even though the extent of said change is wearing her hair down and putting on nice clothes for a social event. Even worse is how she projects her own sorority sisters' mistakes onto the present-day Epsilon Theta members, culminating in her aforementioned manic rant. Apart from stuck-up bully Daisy (played with snobby bravado by Lynn Kim Do), none of the current sorority girls are shown doing anything to warrant this treatment. Daisy's even a saint compared to how cruel Michelle's fellow Theta sisters were in their youth.

Thankfully, the script is self-aware enough to recognize Michelle's shortcomings and have her acknowledge them. She comes to admit she was just as complicit in covering up the truth about Kelly's death as the other three girls and makes amends with Quinn. Kristi Murdock does a great job making Michelle a flawed protagonist who's ultimately still a good person who wants to atone for her mistakes. The only part of this process I didn't like was the way Kelly's ex-boyfriend Lucas factors into it. The opening scene reveals how Michelle convinced Kelly to break up with Lucas to start fresh in college, and in the present day, Michelle apologizes to Lucas and says she made bad assumptions about him. The problem is how that opening scene gives evidence that Michelle was right to conclude that Lucas was bad for Kelly. He reacts to the breakup in classic Psycho Ex fashion and, despite her attempt to say he's a good guy, Kelly appears to be frightened by his behavior. So the fact that Michelle is made to feel guilty for facilitating the split decades later is a little off-putting.

The other three Theta secret-keepers are just as compellingly portrayed as Michelle. Milli M. gives the most emotionally visceral performance of the trio, which makes sense as she plays Gretchen, the most sympathetic of the group. With Gretchen's guilt having driven her to alcoholism and destroyed her life, Milli M. excels at making your heart break for the poor woman. Conversely, Lauren Buglioli's Stacey is the most morally challenged of Michelle's friends. Even in the opening flashback, it's clear that Stacey is not a good person, and her actions 22 years later show she hasn't changed much since college. Desperate to keep the truth buried and hardly showing any remorse for what happened to Kelly, Buglioli makes it easy to hiss at how self-serving Stacey is. Even when she acts nice, you'll question the authenticity of it. After all, most of these instances are brought on by Michelle goading Stacey into them.

Nicole Marie Johnson is left to play Myra, the least developed and least active of the four women. But she still gives a good performance and Myra gets a memorably cathartic moment of telling Michelle off for her attempts to claim the others "forced" her to lie about Kelly's death. Despite his character being undeservedly forgiven for his 1997 toxicity, Andrew Ottolia eventually comes to sell Lucas as a troubled person who's just in need of proper help. Holly Tatem fares better as Lucas's ill-fated girlfriend, as Kelly's good and bad qualities are evenly mixed. Tatem will make you feel sorry for the traumatized girl while also making you understand why her neediness and fragility made Stacey dislike her and Michelle feel smothered by her.

Moving on to the 2019 college students, Quinn Winter isn't nearly as dynamic as the character Kate Edmonds played in A Party Gone Wrong. Despite this, Edmonds still works through Quinn's rocky introduction and makes Quinn a snarky but likable character once she eases up on the "I'm so edgy and nonconformist" rebellion. It helps that her lashing out at Michelle for objecting to her Epsilon Theta pledge is completely justified. From her perspective, Michelle is randomly going back on her desire to see Quinn enjoy college and is getting needlessly upset about her wanting to try something new. Edmonds and Murdock share lovable mother-daughter chemistry as Quinn and Michelle mend their bond and Edmonds show her emotional range again once the climax comes around. Casey Waller's Bridget is a sweet alternative to the bitter Daisy and Nick Wolf makes a charming Lifetime debut as Quinn's cute love interest Cody. It's just a shame his character couldn't be utilized in the story for more than just a few scenes of flirting with Quinn.

WARNING: Spoilers Below

Fellow Lifetime newbie Taylor Hanks, meanwhile, comes into her element once the truth about "Lucy" is revealed. Before that reveal, Hanks does OK at best playing Quinn's monotoned and obviously up-to-no-good new best friend. But once she's revealed as Kelly's daughter and tries to murder Quinn for revenge, Hanks digs her claws into her revitalized character. As she's ranting and trying to hunt Quinn down, you'll alternate between fearing Lucy's psychotic breakdown and feeling sorry for her. While she wants to get back at Michelle, you can see that Lucy truly came to value Quinn's friendship and doesn't really want to kill her.

This tragic characterization for Lucy makes both her defeat (being talked down by Michelle) and redemption believable. While it's still weird to see her walking free a mere two years after drugging a bunch of people and trying to murder someone, it's still nice to see Lucy making amends with Quinn and Michelle and having a relationship with her father. It's also a good thing that the epilogue indicates that Lucy and Lucas have received the mental help they clearly needed during those two years. Banks is joined by Murdock, Edmonds, and Buglioli in bringing their emotional A-games to the climax as their characters are driven to their breaking points. For Buglioli, that means sinking her teeth into Stacey's reveal as a deranged woman who killed Kelly, killed again to cover it up, and was still desperately trying to cling to Michelle for support (ironically so, given how she mocked Kelly for doing the same). It's a heart-gripping finale that ends with a grand crescendo.

Spoilers Over

For all that Secrets on Sorority Row has to offer, the uneven plot and mood do enough damage to take it down a few pegs. At least the odd intervals of dark comedy (intentional and otherwise) are fun in their weirdness and break up the duller sections of the film. The actors and the well-written characters they're portraying also keep things interesting, drawing you into their troubles and the conflicts that emerge between them. Having it all wrap up with a taut final confrontation and one last twist further makes up for when the movie's pace starts sputtering. As long as you don't have any triggering college hazing memories of your own, Secrets on Sorority Row should be up your alley if you're in the mood for a few histrionics.

Score: 7 out of 10 pink blindfolds.

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About the Creator

Trevor Wells

Aspiring writer and film blogger: Lifetime, Hallmark, indie, and anything else that strikes my interest. He/him.

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Twitter: @TrevorWells98

Instagram: @trevorwells_16

Email: [email protected]

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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