Stranger With My Face

Rating:

At Least I Saw it On DVD Without the Commercials.

Main Cast: Alexz Johnson and Catherine Hicks

Director: Jeff Renfroe

There’s a reason I tend to avoid made for TV movies, even ones in the speculative genre like 2009’s Stranger With My Face.  That’s because most of them look like made for TV movies. Like 2009’s Stranger With My Face.

Adapted from a 1981 YA book by Lois Duncan, the movie tells the story of teenager Laurie Stratton (Alexz Johnson), whose father, the famous painter James Stratton, was recently killed in a traffic accident. Witnesses claimed they saw James run inexplicably into traffic. Meanwhile, back at the Stratton home, at the moment of James’s death, Laurie had a vision of her father. She thought he was home until her mother (played by “Seventh Heaven’s” Catherine Hicks) came in and told her the news.

Now the remaining Strattons, Laurie, mother Shelly, and younger sister Alexis, have moved to their summer house on an island off the coast of New York or Maine, I don’t think it was ever clarified, or I just missed it. Either way, Laurie immediately begins to suspect strange doings. On the first day of school, Laurie’s summer friends claim to have seen Laurie at a bonfire the night before, which is impossible because Laurie knows she was home the night before. Her friends also claim to have seen Laurie sneaking off with local freakshow Jeff (he’s scarred up from a motorcycle accident and walks with a cane) instead of local jock Gordon whom she’d been dating the previous summer. Which is still impossible, because Laurie knows she was still at home the previous night.

As Laurie deals with the death of her father and her family being uprooted from their home, she sees how shallow the townies are and takes up with some new friends, Jeff the local freakshow being one and Helen the local not very popular girl being the other. But a new group of friends are soon to be the least of Laurie’s worries once she begins to see a familiar face–her own–appearing before her, asking for help.

Laurie, who knows she was adopted, asks her mother if she–Laurie–might have had a sister. Yes, her mother says, a twin sister. Through some leap in logic I still don’t quite understand, Laurie comes to the conclusion that her twin sister–whom the Strattons couldn’t afford to adopt when they got Laurie–Lia, has been contacting her via astral projection. So she reads up on the subject, becoming nearly obsessed with it until her new friend Helen asks Laurie’s mother if she can talk to her privately as she fears Laurie may be in danger. But when Shelly Stratton arrives for her meeting with Helen at “the cliffs”, Helen is lying in a twisted pile of her own broken bones on the rocks below.

Never fear, Helen’s merely in a coma, not dead. And after Jeff is nearly run down in the middle of the road after claiming to have seen Laurie about to be hit, Laurie begins to suspect maybe her twin astral projecting sister is up to no good after all.

Yeah, Stranger With My Face. Made for TV and it shows.

Looking at the plot, the overall concept is solid, even if it’s not very original and is in fact quite predictable. It’s still a good concept. My problem here is with the acting and a really major flaw in the logic.

First the flaw. I already mentioned Laurie’s impossible leap to the astral projection conclusion. In the book, Laurie learns about the ability from Lia herself, but in the movie she, somehow, comes up with the idea herself, assuming that MUST be how Lia is contacting her. I don’t know about you, but if some long-lost twin of mine were appearing to me and no one else could see or hear them, I wouldn’t automatically assume astral projection. Split personality maybe. A ghost perhaps. Both valid assumptions. But astral projection? Out of the blue, like that? No, I’m gonna need a little more to go on.

Everything that happens in the second and third acts depends on Laurie learning about the astral projection angle, and I’m even fine that there IS an astral projection angle, but what in the hell are the chances she’s going to just come up with that one on her own, out of nowhere? I’d much quicker buy Lia explaining to Laurie how she’s able to appear and disappear and how no one else but Laurie can see or hear her, even if the answer IS astral projection. I’d just like to have some kind jumpstart to that line of reasoning to help it makes sense.

Not that it would have saved this movie. This is a made for TV cast and they know it, and have no intention of trying to act above their station. And that works against the movie. Sure, it’s a TV movie, probably for Lifetime, so the quality isn’t going to be great, but that’s no reason to lie down and just do the bare minimum, is it? You’re actors, dammit, ACT. Or at least pretend to be trying to act.

Alexz Johnson has a slew of TV credits to her name (“Instant Star”, “Smallville”, “Haven”, “The Listener”), with very few film roles (Final Destination 3 being the biggest), and I have to believe anyone who gets this much work surely must have a hidden store of talent she hasn’t let shine yet. But if so, what the hell is she waiting for? She’s not TERRIBLE, but I just didn’t get the sense she was trying very hard.

I also felt the entire production here was hampered by the format. This could have been a more interesting movie if it weren’t on TV. So many more interesting things could have been done with this idea, and I know they had a book to follow, but with the changes already made, why not go a little further and really trick it out? If we’re tuning in, at least give us something new and interesting to look at.

The book was adapted by James Pachino who is a TV writer through and through (“Fairly Legal”, “Halt and Catch Fire”, “Franklin and Bash”), but director Jeff Renfroe also directed the 2013 sci-fi movie The Colony with Laurence Fishburne. Not a fantastic movie, but definitely worth watching, and the differences between the quality of both is night and day. So I’m gonna say Renfroe CAN direct. I just don’t think he had a lot to work with here, nor did he try the best with what was at hand. This whole thing just felt like a one-off, a quick project to keep the bills paid but no one involved really cared all that much. And it shows. Even for 2009, this one was pretty lame. If you happen to catch it on TV some day, and there’s nothing else on, give it a whirl, sure. It’s not that good, but it’s mildly entertaining. But if you see it on DVD somewhere and consider BUYING it, think again and pick something else. There’s absolutely no reason to have this movie in your personal DVD collection.

–C. Dennis Moore

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