The Lifetime brand has never been known for subtlety. While this statement reeks of film geek snobbery, it’s not intended as an insult. I firmly believe that this lack of nuance is built right into the business model. While there is a certain subset of people who will sit down and watch a Lifetime movie from beginning to end — and this ranges from folks hunting for an ironic laugh to fans of Law & Order presently between marathons — I believe they’re intended to be consumed primarily as background noise. A Lifetime movie is something to have on while you do something else, maybe housework, a little crocheting, or cleaning a large collection of antique dildos. I’m not here to judge. This is why everything is so obvious, why characters generally say exactly what’s on their minds, and why the fundamental lessons never aim to challenge the imagined values of Middle America. This week’s entry, 2014’s Death Clique is all those things and so much more.
Based on the true story of Skylar Neese — and anyone who wants to lose faith in humanity should check that case out — Death Clique opens with a drunk mom. I know drunk moms, and this lady is seriously, next-level, TV, Lifetime-movie drunk. She’s sucking on an empty wine bottle like she thinks it’s attached to Joe Manganiello. Daughter Ashley, whose blonde locks and resemblance to a more wholesome Evan Rachel Wood would imply her to be the heroine, wanders in. Alert viewers, however, will note her leopard print leggings, which imply that she’s either a) trouble, b) the guitarist from Whitesnake, or c) both. Ashley is instantly a bitch to her mother (whose name is Tina — although I didn’t find that out until the third act), but I can kind of see where she’s coming from here.
At school, we meet two other girls. There’s goody-two-shoes Sara, and bad girl Jade (yep, Jade), who have been best friends since the sixth grade. Sara has the perfect nuclear family, while Jade is being indifferently raised by her absentee dad whose idea of parenting is telling her to find a place to crash while he moves in with someone named Mindy. Ashley inserts herself into the group, and though she makes a cursory effort to fit in, she pretty much immediately focuses on Jade, staring at the girl like she’s a hot pocket. At first it’s just surface rudeness to Sara, but it soon develops into Ashley attempting to drive a wedge between the two friends.
Meanwhile, Sara’s dad got a job offer in Houston. Apparently it’s a giant promotion, but they would have to move. This plot thread is there to provoke conflict in the perfect family, as well as point out that the last time this happened, Sara ran away. It also serves to twist the knife of irony, as the main reason Sara doesn’t want to leave is out of loyalty to Jade. As Ashley isolates her from Jade, this isolates Sara from her parent. Granted, it’s sort of her fault in this case, but she’s in high school. She’s supposed to be selfish.
Ashley shows her true colors pretty quick. While the stuff she does to separate Sara and Jade is wrong, it’s not necessarily out of the bounds of normal teenage stuff. By which I mean borderline psychopathic, but isn’t that what teenagers are? Well, normal until the Spanish teacher calls out Jade in class, and the two brand new BFFs head over to slash his tires. Or when her drunk mom decides to take umbrage with Ashley’s outfit, thus showing the best ways to rearrange the Titanic’s deck chairs, and gets an open-handed bitchslap to the mouth for her troubles. Ashley keeps up her campaign of terror between the friends, but at this point, it’s not quite into Single White Female territory. Not until Sara actually confronts Jade about what’s been happening, and Ashley overhears. Shit’s about to get real.
Later that night, when she’s in bed with Jade, Ashley talks about how Sara drags them down and someone should put her out of her misery. Jade wants to ignore her, but it’s pretty obvious that Ashley wants to do more. If the girl had a mustache, she’d be twirling it and there’d be a big thought bubble over her head with Sara tied to some train tracks. Jade, still under the impression they’re just planning to play a prank on Sara, gets her to come out with them. “I trust you,” Sara says. They take Sara to an abandoned warehouse, and Ashley stabs her to death with a pocket knife while Jade freaks out.
Ashley acts a lot like Dexter did in the first season, showing zero remorse and being baffled whenever Jade does. She’s basically an Evan Rachel Wood-shaped robot. She‘s still pretty savvy though, knowing enough to implicate Jade, at first assuring her that they’re in it together, and later as the police close in, actually planting the bloody murder weapon in Jade’s house. Since she saved the knife and never washed it, it’s pretty obvious that this was her plan from the beginning.
The movie shifts over to Lana and Paul, Sara’s parents, as they deal with the slowly mounting horror of their daughter’s disappearance. Paul thinks Sara just ran away again, stopping short of calling his wife crazy. But this is Lifetime, remember, so this is about the steely determination of a woman out for justice. Jade (after lots of denials and outright lies) finally comes clean about what happened, but due to Ashley’s preparations, Jade’s the one who gets hit with the crime. Lana, after researching Sara’s Fakebook page (that’s what I’m calling the movie’s hilariously low-res version of Facebook), is convinced Ashley is behind it all. And she’s right. Eventually, she’s able to appeal to Tina the Drunk Mom’s sense of decency and set up a bizarre sting to get Ashley to confess, which she does in a moment of supervillainic hubris. This scene features multiple characters stepping out of the kitchen to catch Ashley in the confession. It’s kind of amazing.
The movie as a whole is pretty standard Lifetime fare — as I’ve begun to understand it through my frankly surprising journey. It’s a true-crime thing preying upon the adult fear of losing a child, modestly budgeted for the suburban set. Yet Death Clique is remarkable in its subtext, which veers toward the blatant even for this network. First, there is the focus on family: of the three girls, only good Sara has a mother and a father. Ashley is raised by a single mom whose crippling alcoholism (and a single line of dialogue) implies that she can’t hold a job (yet she lives in a lovely suburban castle with multiple bedrooms). Jade’s deadbeat dad is scarcely better, and it’s the saintly Lana and Paul who cared for her the most.
Yet most repellent is the depiction of Ashley as a predatory lesbian. Yeah, I didn’t mention that in the synopsis, because it had fuck all to do with the plot. Homosocial friendships can have gay undertones, but Death Clique wanted to make those into overtones. Jade and Ashley share a bed often, with Ashley cuddling up to her sleeping friend. Ashley gives Jade long, lingering, and smoldering fuck me eyes at the slightest provocation. The defining photo of the two girls, seen many times throughout the film, has Ashley planting a not at all platonic kiss on her friend’s cheek. She even tells Jade she loves her. And, lastly, after all the murder and framing have happened, there’s a throwaway scene where Ashley meets a new girl and sparks fly.
What did we learn this week? Well, we learned that a single-parent household will, at best, produce a girl who will stand idly by while her best friend is murdered, and at worst, will become a lesbian psychopath. If there’s even a difference. It’s strange to watch Lifetime, in an era in which 17 states have instituted marriage equality, wallowing in the kind of rank homophobia that should be deader than disco.