The Family I Had


An estranged mother and daughter face an uncertain future.

(2017) Documentary (Discovery/Smoke & Apple) Charity Lee, Ella, Paris, Becca, Kyla, Chaplain Donna, Khyman, Phoenix. Directed by Katie Green and Carlye Rubin

 

Certain things are just unthinkable. They aren’t possibilities most people ever have to consider. When we encounter them (generally in a news story or documentary) we are shocked and often we attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of those victimized. However, try as we might, we just can’t do it.

Charity Lee was working in a bar and grill one rainy Super Bowl Sunday near her home in Abilene, Texas when the police come to the bar and she is summoned to the manager’s office. Her little four-year-old girl Ella has been hurt. When she tries to get details, eventually the police admit that her baby is dead.

But that isn’t even the worst part; her son Paris, then 13 years old, murdered his little sister – strangling her and stabbing her 17 times with a kitchen knife. On the 911 call he sounds panicked and upset. He claims that he was hallucinating and thought that Ella was a demon.

How does one forgive a crime like that? If it is a stranger who committed the crime, it’s a bit easier I would imagine but when it’s your own flesh and blood – the son you carried for nine months, the boy who gave your life meaning and purpose – how do you forgive them when he takes your little baby away? Do you write him off, abandon him? Could you even try?

These are the impossible choices facing Charity and the filmmakers pull no punches but over the course of the 77 minute documentary they slowly reveal the other elements of the puzzle; Charity is a recovering heroin addict, her short-cropped hair and tattooed body proclaiming her intention to live outside the norm. We are introduced to Kyla, Charity’s mom from whom Charity has been estranged for years, even before the murder. It turns out that Kyla has some skeletons of her own in the closet including a whopper you won’t see coming. The apple may not fall very far from the tree after all.

I think this is one of those documentaries that is better viewed knowing as little as possible about the film when watching it. The revelations here aren’t “gotcha” moments by any means and while it may seem that there is a random element to how things are revealed, upon reflection I don’t think that’s the case as all. Green and Rubin unfold the story very much as you might hear it from the people involved themselves, with bits and pieces and fragments coming out in dribs and drabs. If you were to befriend Charity, chances are she wouldn’t hit you over the head with all of it at once. She would tell you about the horrific crime first and then slowly tell you other elements of the story as she gets to trust you. The storytelling, in that sense, is completely organic.

We meet Paris through a series of prison interviews and at first he comes off as a bright and fairly normal guy (he’s in his early 20s now). We also begin to learn that he is anything but normal; we are shown illustrations that he draws which are cleverly brought to life through the magic of computer animation. Glimpses of the darkness inside him make themselves known as we observe the disturbing pencil drawings; revelations from Charity also tell us, shockingly, that a psychiatrist warned of Paris’ potential homicidal tendencies more than a year before Ella’s murder.

We also view home movies of what appears to be a loving family with Paris doting on Ella. By all accounts the two were very close, making not just the fact that Paris murdered Ella so shocking but the brutality of the act comes as even more of a surprise. Even so, Charity at one point admits that she was afraid of her son even before he took her daughter’s life.

Charity has since had a third child, a beautiful little boy named Phoenix. Paris sends Phoenix letters with some fairly terrifying drawings and Charity admits that she is terrified of what Paris might do to Phoenix should Paris be released from prison which in about ten years he will be eligible to do. Charity clearly alternates between that fear and the desire to get her son the help he needs and that the Texas prison system is all too unwilling to provide. Charity is concerned and rightly so that Paris may leave the confines of the Texas penal system more of a monster than he was when he arrived.

Rubin and Green use only first names throughout the film, possibly to drive home the point that this could be any family. Certainly Charity’s wild child days and her general non-conformity will raise some eyebrows, but nobody who watches her with her kids will think anything less of her than being a supremely loving mother whose eyes alone reflect the grief and strain of having had to navigate an impossible situation. Regardless of what you think of her life choices, nobody should have to suffer as she has and continues to suffer to this day.

This documentary made it’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April and is currently airing on the Investigation Discovery channel but it shouldn’t be too long before it is available to stream. When it does, this is one film you should keep an eye out for particularly for those who are into true crime films. This is one of the best I’ve seen this year.

This is a searing documentary that will not leave your memory easily. There are those who no doubt will point to Charity and her checkered past with judgmental fingers, but it’s hard to do when you see how strong she is, how hard she tries and how she herself is growing and becoming better. One feels sympathy and might even wish that this woman and her family can find some sort of peace.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling look at how a seemingly normal, bright kid can be a dangerous sociopath. The dysfunctional family dynamic shown here raises some important questions. The animated drawings are nifty – but disturbing. The forgiveness can be transformational.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this a little too shocking and disturbing to submerge themselves into.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug content and violent content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is partially set in Abilene, Texas which has more churches per capita than any other city in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Investigation Discovery
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Murder in Mansfield
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Atomic Blonde

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It’s Not My Fault (And I Don’t Care Anyway)


This hideout could use a cleaning service.

(2017) Dramedy (108 Media) Alan Thicke, Quinton Aaron, Leah Doz, Valerie Planche, Reamonn Joshee, Jesse Lipscombe, Allen Belcourt, Orin McCusker, Tony Yee, Elisa Benzer, Kevin Hanchard, Norma Lewis, Trevor Schmidt, Hillary Warden, Julia LeConte, Amber Lewis, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, Mark Sinongco, Donovan Workun, Matt Alden, Erica Ullyot. Directed by Christopher Craddock

 

In our current society, self-help has been taken to new heights. We have become so self-involved, so self-focused that we have stopped seeing ourselves as part of anything larger. We’ve become all about getting everything we can for ourselves and everyone else can go screw themselves. It’s not a society that is pretty.

Patrick Spencer (Thicke) is a self-help guru who has gotten rich preaching “me first” to the choir. Masses of people have bought his books and attended his speaking engagements all chanting his mantra “It’s not my fault and I don’t care anyway” like robots, a means of absolving themselves of responsibility for anything. Patrick, a former alcoholic, is really good at that.

His daughter Diana (Doz) can attest to that more than most. Her relationship with her Dad is a rocky one indeed. She watched her mother (Frederick) grow more and more morose until she divorced Patrick; once she got the divorce settlement that would allow Diana to live decently, she took her leave of this life. Diana turned to drugs and sex.

Brian Calhoun (Aaron) grew up with loving parents, although things ended badly for them. Brian is called “Giant Man” around the neighborhood (not a terribly imaginative nickname) for his size which is impressive. It also comes with a price; Brian knows that his lifespan will be much shorter than most. Alone and miserable, Brian becomes a heroin addict and his size brings him to the attention of Johnny Three Fingers (Lipscombe), a vicious drug dealer and crime boss. Johnny needs an intimidator, something his right hand men Moose (Belcourt) and Lil’ Charles (McCusker) aren’t really capable of.

But Lil’ Charles has been seeing Diana and discovers her daddy is rich. When Johnny finds out about this, he decides a kidnapping and ransom would be in order. What he failed to reckon with that Patrick is so self-centered that he refuses to pay a ransom for his daughter; if she dies, after all, it’s not his fault and he doesn’t care anyway.

The two cops assigned to the case, Detective Elizabeth Stone (Planche) and her partner Smitty (Joshee) are dumbfounded by this but nonetheless go about trying to solve the case and, hopefully, rescue Diana. Brian who is really a gentle giant however doesn’t want to see her get hurt and together the two come up with a plan but it is a dangerous one.

This Canadian film is one of the last appearances of the late Alan Thicke, who is best known for playing the dad in Growing Pains, a hit sitcom back in the 80s. This is a far different role than Dr. Jason Seaver was for him. In a lot of ways, it’s a very savvy character particularly attuned to the modern man. He’s very charming but not always likable and I suppose that’s what our society values these days. Craddock, who based this on his own one-man play, picked up on that nicely.

The film is essentially told in flashback by four of the main characters in a kind of confessional way. Patrick discusses the incident at one of his self-help speaking engagements. Diana talks about it at a sex addiction group therapy session. Brian tells his side of the story during a police interrogation after the act. Finally Detective Stone is interviewed about the story by a journalist (Benzer).

The most compelling story belongs to that of Brian and in all honesty Aaron is the most likable actor in the group (with all due respect to Thicke). Aaron, who most might remember playing Big Mike Oher in The Blind Side, has a very sweet nature and while it’s hard to believe him as a heroin addict he manages to make the part his own anyway. His story tended to be the one I enjoyed the most.

There is a wry tone to the humor which is rather dry and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I enjoy the change of pace from most of the comedies we’ve been getting lately in which the humor is broad. However, it isn’t as funny as I would have liked and at times the energy is lacking. Part of the problem is that much of the film is static; we’re watching the characters sitting in chairs talking about the kidnapping and their lives up to that point.

This almost feels like a made for TV movie other than the graphic sex scene that comes out of nowhere and the fairly consistent use of profanity which one might expect from criminal sorts. Still, if you’re going to do that I think you need a little bit more punch. Not that there isn’t any – it’s just that there are so many talking head interludes that it disrupts the flow of the film.

Essentially this is available on VOD through various streaming services so that’s your best bet if you want to see this. It’s not a bad film but it isn’t very compelling either. I like that this is essentially about our move towards selfishness but it needed a bit more energy to make it work better.

REASONS TO GO: Aaron is a very compelling and likable performer. The humor is a little drier than usual which is quite welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: At times, the film gets a little bit too maudlin. The energy is missing at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some fairly graphic violence, some sexuality, drug use and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Thicke and Lipscombe penned and performed tunes on the soundtrack.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ruthless People
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Last Word