Lifetime Review: 'The Secret Life of a Celebrity Surrogate'
Intense atmosphere and a marvelous cast help heal the thorn in this surrogacy drama's side.
Down-on-her-luck Olivia Bolton (Carrie Wampler) has been hit with a triple whammy: losing her job, getting kicked out of her apartment, and finding out her boyfriend's been cheating on her all in the same day. Desperate for a way out of her rut, Olivia turns to social media for new employment. It's then that a very lucrative opportunity presents itself: the chance to act as a surrogate for high-profile celebrity Ava Von Richter (Brianne Davis). Charmed by Ava and her fabulous house, Olivia quickly agrees to be her surrogate and is initially welcomed warmly by Olivia and her husband Hayden (Carl Beukes).
But as her fertility treatments begin, Olivia starts to see the cracks in her seemingly perfect new life. In addition to odd behaviors on the part of Ava and Hayden, her idyllic living arrangement begins to feel like a suffocating prison. It's as things become stranger that Olivia wonders if Ava and Hayden are even fit to be parents. But when Olivia tries to break away from the Von Richters, it becomes clear that her situation is more dangerous than she could've imagined--and she'll now have to fight for both her own life and the life of the baby growing inside her.
Director Mark Gantt's sophomore Lifetime offering A Deadly Price for Her Pretty Face, as you might recall, made quite the splash with me for its intense story and exceptional cast and characters. With his debut to the channel being a 2015 true crime biopic (Murder in Mexico: The Bruce Beresford-Redman Story), his first full-on Lifetime thriller proved a smashing success. So when I learned about his latest thriller The Secret Life of a Celebrity Surrogate, I was in eager anticipation. While a few issues keep it from reaching Deadly Price's level, there's still plenty here to make it a worthwhile follow-up to Gantt's previous thriller.
Something Secret Life and Deadly Price share in common is atmosphere. After a cold open that shows us how bad things will get, Secret Life quickly-but-effectively builds up its story before throwing us into a ticking bomb scenario. It doesn't take long for Olivia to realize something is off with the Von Richters, and the viewer is left watching with bated breath to see when it'll all hit the fan. The incredible cinematography also does a great job of setting Secret Life's mood. Andrew Russo finds a way to frame the beautiful Von Richter estate and the surrounding nature in a way that, despite its serene appearance, you can feel the tension brewing just beneath the surface. That tension builds up into an explosive third act, capped off with an enthralling climax that hits you with one last twist that is sure to surprise many.
But when it comes to Secret Life's story, a recurring issue crops up that I was unable to let go of. Despite seeing her first overt sign of the Von Richters' instability before even accepting the job, Olivia still goes ahead with becoming their surrogate, not even trying to confront them on what happened the night before. Had Ava and Hayden given some placating words to Olivia to explain their behavior, this might've been easier to accept. As is, it makes Olivia appear blind to the warning signs of her employers' true selves.
WARNING: Spoilers Below
When Olivia announced her successful pregnancy to Ava and Hayden, I was just about to forgive her for her daft decision by assuming she was under an "It's just stress, things will be fine once I'm pregnant" mentality. But then she continued to stay at the house after her employers tried to celebrate the news with a threesome--her second instance of being sexually harassed by Hayden--and that theory went out the window. Lastly is the glaring plot hole regarding Olivia's run-in with the police after her escape attempt. Why did Olivia not tell the officer everything she'd witnessed at the Von Richter estate? I'd like to believe that even the dumbest Lifetime cop wouldn't bring a pregnant woman back to a house where she said she was being harassed and where domestic violence was taking place.
While Olivia's actions take some bite out of her character's likability, Carrie Wampler's performance provides salvation. Wampler brings an endearing vulnerability to Olivia that survives her character's dense decisions. She also plays Olivia with an awkward meekness as she becomes entrenched with her celebrity employers, which (in addition to the bleak situation she was in upon meeting the Von Richters) adds a sprinkle of believability to her complacency. Secret Life also gives Wampler plenty of emotional and intense scenes that she delivers with striking energy. A particularly noteworthy scene is when Olivia has a quiet moment alone with her unborn child, highlighting Olivia's stronger character traits to help ease the burden of her troublesome ones.
Joining Wampler to create Secret Life's primary trio are Brianne Davis and Carl Beukes as Ava and Hayden Von Richter. Of the two, Ava is the more developed character, and ends up becoming a surprisingly faceted antagonist. SPOILER ALERT Unlike Genevieve Parker from the similarly plotted Dying for Motherhood, Ava Von Richter isn't your standard baby crazy psychopath. Instead, as we learn, Ava sees having a child as a means of maintaining her outwardly lavish lifestyle and saving her broken marriage. Once Hayden's gone, Ava wants nothing to do with "her" baby and is willing to kill both Olivia and the unborn child to preserve her public image. Davis goes all-in on Ava's insane moments, while keeping her restrained enough to where you can believe she'd be able to keep her craziness out of the tabloids. It was also unique that, until the third act, Ava and Hayden don't cross the line into criminal villainy. Instead, they're a much more realistic (but nonetheless despicable) depiction of a reckless and volatile couple who have no business raising a child.
But despite her monstrous actions, Ava has moments when a softer side emerges from her--moments that Davis delivers just as well. As we get a taste of the toxic and occasionally violent nature of the Von Richter marriage, a tragic side to Ava's obsession with having the perfect life forms. As her strident defense of Hayden's abuse shows, Ava values having her idea of the "perfect life" more than her well-being. This brings a poignancy to Ava's mood swings and third-act breakdown to a captive Olivia, and puts some of her actions in a different light. Even when the final act has her at her absolute worst, Ava remains a villain as thought-provoking as she is fun to watch spiral into madness. Spoilers Over
While his character is a far cry from Ava in terms of development, Carl Beukes brings palpable sliminess to Hayden Von Richter, allowing the audience to be just as repulsed by his behavior as Olivia is. In supporting players, Kenneth Miller sparks excellent chemistry with Wampler as Olivia forms a friendship with empathetic live-in cook Peter, while Jordyn Aurora Aquino brings compelling depth to Ava's morally ambiguous assistant Cassidy. Budding Lifetime regular Mitchell Hoog also briefly appears as Olivia's adulterous boyfriend Ryan, with Hoog perfectly nailing the "sleazy, self-centered douchebag" vibe. I also enjoyed how Hoog contributes to the opening's subtle foreshadowing to Ryan's infidelity; another sign of the film's overall attention to detail.
In the end, it's Secret Life's overly docile protagonist that causes the movie to slip below Deadly Price. The plot holes are too big to stomach, and the damage has a lingering quality that rubs salt in the wound. But with the film replicating a lot of Deadly Price's strong points, the damage isn't insurmountable. With a talented cast playing well-defined characters against the backdrop of an action-packed drama, Secret Life is another great thriller courtesy of Mark Gantt--and serves as a stellar behind-the-camera debut for Courtney Henggeler.
Score: 8 out of 10 thirty-buttoned toilets.