'Desperate Widows' Review: This unsettling human trafficking film on a mother-daughter duo is perfect for Women's Day
It’s easy to mark ‘Desperate Widows’ as just another mediocre film, but that’s exactly what it's not. On the surface, you see a bunch of well-dressed women trying to make the best use of the dialogues, which sometimes seems so natural, it risks being branded as "bad acting". The Lifetime movie begins with a crime, following which the rest of it showcases the tale in broad daylight in a sunny cafe or a bright farm with uplifting music.
So if you’re looking for your daily dose of on-the-face horror or gore that usually comes along with human trafficking films, Lane Shefter Bishop’s newest thriller might not cut it for you. With its pastel palettes and polite yet wicked conversations, the movie does not aim to shock with the gruesome but unsettle with its slow-moving storyline and deliberate dosage of sweet talk.
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Previously billed and released as ‘Mommune’, Bishop’s film starts in the back of beyond, with the shot of a van driving through a lone path in the dead of night to a haunting tune. A mother and daughter are tied up with their mouths taped and shut in the back. The daughter wakes up, their situation visibly surprising and distressing her. But no matter the kicking and struggling, no help comes their way, as a masked man dressed all in black puts an ether-soaked handkerchief to her nose. He then picks up the unconscious woman, takes her out into the wilderness, and the rest is history. We never see them again.
We then meet the wealthy, impeccably dressed Paige Judeson (Justine Eyre), a famous thriller writer who’s popular enough to have been on a Jimmy Kimmel show and her equally trim daughter Allie (Olivia Stuck) at a funeral. A suggestion leads to an altercation and the mother puts her foot down to say — ‘Not now, of all days’ — and that's enough to put a seal on the strenuous mother-daughter relationship.
Fast forward to Allie getting cozy with a boyfriend (Mark Valeriano) who looks like a '90s rockstar and another altercation with the daughter, Paige takes a nap only to have a dream about Brian’s cardiac arrest, and how Allie was there as it had happened. Realizing how traumatic it had been for her and her daughter, she visits psychiatrist Dr Dylan Norse (Bret Shefter). Norse is concerned she will feel isolated, so he suggests she attend a grief counseling group. And that is where the real problems start.
The duo moves from the comfort of NYC to the dusty ‘Hicksley’, seemingly an imaginary town in Iowa. Allie describes the home as such ‘a dump’ and Paige attends the grief counseling group activity in the evening that day, which turns out pretty mediocre. She meets fellow widow Willow (Aylya Marzolf) who says she understands Paige and shares a phone number of a woman named ‘Dianne’, who had changed her life forever, although it isn’t described how.
Paige takes this opportunity to meet Dianne (Allison McAtee) the next day at a cafe and is impressed by her charming, dynamic personality and how she built not her career with ‘The Farm’, a self-sustaining cooperative for widows and their daughters. “It’s a Mommune, you know? Mom, commune,” Dianne jokes. Paige dithers a little but finally agrees, even after Dianne adds that the ‘The Farm’ has a policy of a minimum 3-month stay rule, which doesn’t sound as non-negotiable as it really is.
Paige and Allie drive to The Farm. Allie may be just a teenager but she notices things her mother doesn’t yet. Her phone has no service, and she realizes that The Farm is in the middle of nowhere. “It’s more like a prison than a farm”, she quips. True, Allie, true. With the barbed wired walls and spooky security cameras, you’d know that these two women are not coming out anytime soon.
They walk in and find Dianne and Kianna (Geri-Nikole Love), Dianne’s right-hand woman who immediately takes their car keys, in order to bring in the luggage of course, and, as it is eventually found out, to keep out their car.
Different rooms for her and her daughter don’t sit well at first with Paige, but Dianne tells her it will aid their relationship, and that she’s old enough to bunk in with another girl. Meeting the roommate, Samantha (Elyssa Joy), calms Paige down. The two become fast friends, as Samantha shares stories about Justine and her mom who were there but left The Farm without saying goodbye. Things begin to get tense. Paige then goes on a tour of the property with Dianne, where she meets various people doing different kinds of chores on the farm.
She is surprised when she spots a man — which seems odd as the Mommune is only for widows and daughters. Dianne tells her that he’s Jon (Jake B Miller), a widower who cannot speak and just a handyman, who’s new to the compound and doesn’t stay there.
She then meets Tessa (Kate Bond), Samantha’s mother who isn’t a widow but a victim of domestic violence along with her daughter. She’s shown cutting fish and says she carries around a knife as a habit now, and that she’s living on The Farm for six months now. The real twist comes in when Paige’s requests to spend time with her daughter are coldly ignored by Dianne and it is then that she begins to realize that something is cooking. Secretly.
Thereafter, we find out how some of these characters are connected to one another, or to the secret that looms over The Farm. We find out how much they really know about the place. Some characters are not at all what they seem to be, even though some of their idiosyncrasies will make you think otherwise. The slow pace to lighter tones and haunting silence, all contribute to a very realistic portrayal of the Black market human trafficking den. Even though it's right under your nose, you’d surely miss it. As for the widows, they are just trying to keep themselves alive. Most don't even know the place is a stronghold for potential sales to a slave market.
Some other things come across very clearly in Bishop’s film. The characters find themselves in the middle-of-nowhere, living away from cell phones and society. It seems impossible to pinpoint where the characters are, even after we see the posh, protected entrance to ‘The Farm’. For a viewer, it brings out the displacement and confusion that trafficking victims themselves deal with.
But perhaps the most enjoyable thing about this movie is its characters. Yes, it is a film dominated by women, but Eyre, Stuck, McAtee, Bond, Joy, Nikole-Love and Marzolf — each one of them delivers performances so real, you’d feel their perspective even if they were wrong. McAtee’s performance as the sweet, sinister owner of the co-op, is enough to incite paranoia about meeting strangers and moving into their property. She may seem cold and heartless on the forefront but is so full of strong-will and sheer independence. This can be said about all the other women in the show, even Jake B Miller’s character — who changed his colors like a ‘chameleon’.
And yet, after all the trauma, the final scene shows light at the end of the dark tunnel. We won't reveal how it ends so you can tune in and watch what happens. The happy ending gives a glimmer of hope and depicts how independent and strong-willed women can fight against the wrong.
Even though the movie is not based on a true story, it peeps into the underbelly of Black market crime. After watching the movie, you will realize why ‘Desperate Widows’ is perfect for the eve of Women’s Day. And perhaps, it's also where every woman will find their story told.
So, what are you waiting for? Get along with your gang together and catch ‘Desperate Widows’ once it releases on Lifetime March 7, 2021 at 8 pm ET.