Lifetime‘s latest Saturday night movie, Abducted: The Carlina White Story, tells a true, compelling story in a manner which avoids the network’s typical corniness. That’s due in part to the performances of stars Keke Palmer and Sherri Shepherd. While there are plenty of loose ends and clichéd moments, the movie doesn’t reek of Lifetime cheese.
My relatively positive perception of the movie was compromised when I watched the hour-long documentary Lifetime aired after the film. The special, titled Beyond the Headlines: The Carlina White Story, examined the real story on which the movie was based, as told by the actual people involved. The program shed light on what Lifetime means when they say a movie is “based on a true story.” To Lifetime, “true story” means “No names have been changed, but facts have.”
The basic facts of the case are all there in the film. 19-day-old Carlina White (Palmer) is kidnapped from the hospital when her young parents take her in for a fever. She is raised by her abductor, Ann Pettway (Aunjanue Ellis), a woman who has endured several miscarriages. Carlina believes that her name is Nejdra and that Ann is her mother. When Carlina becomes pregnant, she begins to discover lies about her background, namely that Ann is not her mother. Carlina takes it upon herself to investigate where she came from, and she eventually finds her birth parents, Joy White (Shepherd) and Carl Tyson (Roger R. Cross).
The movie does leave some confusion about what to think of Carlina White. The film sets her up as the heroine, a young woman who bravely attempts to discover her identity. Once Carlina meets her birth parents, however, her feelings start to change, and she cuts off contact with them. The movie doesn’t make it clear why she decides not to have a relationship with them, which is a frustrating ending for a viewer.
The documentary reveals a clearer explanation for why Carlina becomes hesitant to associate with her parents. It also provides a clearer sense of how much Lifetime likes to bend the truth in their movies, often unnecessarily. The facts Lifetime leaves out or manipulates would have provided a pathway for exploring Carlina’s complexity. Oh dear, look at me implying that Lifetime creates complex characters. How could I be so silly?
Some of the key details Lifetime leaves out include the fact that Ann gave birth to a son years after abducting Carlina. While Ann believed she was incapable of having a child when she committed the crime, the detail still complicates her character’s complexity. Oh, there I go with that complexity nonsense again. When will I learn?
The movie also alludes to Ann’s drug abuse, but never gives a definite answer. The documentary reveals that Ann was arrested various times on drug charges, and the father of her miscarried child was a drug dealer. Maybe Lifetime thought the movie was just too serious to begin with, so they left that part out. They don’t want to make people cry too much, you see.