Spoiler alert: This teen movie watching attempt didn’t pan out
By “teen movie” I mean a movie that claims to be about teens, and teen-issues. In general, Hollywood and I remember teenage life very differently. A Mother’s Nightmare takes that skewed perception of the adolescent years to deeply disturbing places, and not because of the movie’s villainous “seductive teen” girl who’s out to murder her sweet, innocent boyfriend.
This is a Lifetime TV movie I’m talking about so many will argue that trying to watch this film was a bad plan. They are correct. The best thing about bad movies is that they give us something to bitch about. But this movie was spectacularly bad for a surprising reason: it is an example of a missed opportunity.
(Trigger warning for the following discussion of slut-shaming, murder, suicide, and “craziness”.)
The movie itself revolves around a slut-shaming portrayal of a teenage girl – she’s “seductive” – as if we didn’t have enough narratives, fictional and cultural, that cast teenaged girls as dangerously promiscuous. I would dearly love it if we could all let go of the Highly Sexual and Evil Woman trope gather dust and decay like the archaic throw-back it is. I live in hope.
The premise of the movie is that Vanessa, a mentally unstable ward of the state, is being foisted on unsuspecting foster parents and a naïve student body. This a slap in the face to both social workers and foster parents – people who do very emotionally demanding work while going unrecognized for it. As Vanessa’s past comes to light, many characters describe her as “crazy”. At best, this use of “crazy” is the sign of a writer with a very weak vocabulary. At worst it’s reductive and shaming.
However, despite all of the above bile the movie does have a genuinely important problem at its core. The teenage boy, Chris, is in an abusive relationship with Vanessa and his friends and family slowly become aware of this fact. Vanessa encourages Chris to do unsafe things he did not do before (heavy underage drinking), monopolizes his time, isolates him from his friends and family, urges him into quite the sport he loved, manipulates him into staying with her when he tries to break up, and spreads poisonous rumours about him to control him. These behaviours are all emotional abusive.
Stories are about conflict and an abusive relationship is a legitimate source of conflict for all involved. And this is an important story because it touches a very real problem that can have disasterous consequences. Abusive and/or manipulative partners can be hard to recognize, and in many cases they do in fact suffer from mental health problems themselves. This blog points out some unhealthy and controlling behaviours and reminds us that suffering from poor mental health is NEVER an excuse to mistreat your significant other – or anyone else for that matter. It is important that we tell stories about unhealthy relationships so that we can learn to recognize healthy ones. A Mother’s Nightmare could have been the start of a conversation.
Instead, all this potential is sadly buried under a mile of misinformation and prejudice about mental illness. The writers of A Mother’s Worst Nightmare spectacularly and catastrophically did not do the bloody research.
Delusional Disorder, the illness that Vanessa is identified as suffering from, is real. Delusions are often a symptom of other mental health issues, but DD is defined as someone adamantly believing in something that is not true. It can be genetic (see Vanessa’s mother having it and passing it on to her daughter) and it can effect romantic relationships. WebMD includes being convinced that someone is in love with you, such as a famous celebrity who has never met you, or being intensely jealous without cause as possible symptoms of DD. Either of those traits could have driven the story well and emphasised the abusive nature of Vanessa’s relationship with Chris. But there is no factual basis for Vanessa’s “obsession with death” or her attempting to force her boyfriends to kill themselves using drugs that she has for some unexplained reason. Making Vanessa a murderer is distastefully melodramatic.
Vanessa shown to be a liar and a manipulator; these things are enough to make her villainous. Being manipulative is a legitimately dangerous trait in anyone, let alone a romantic partner to a recently-heart-broken and depressed teenager. But no. Vanessa is “crazy” because that makes for more drama.
A Mother’s Nightmare could have been a meaningful story about recognizing manipulative behaviour and doing what you can to protect someone you know to be in an abusive relationship. Instead, this movie demonizes the mentally ill character and uses disgusting stereotypes to sensationalize its subject matter beyond recognition. The scary, crazy girls are coming for your sons.
What a waste.