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It was nine years ago that Bailey Kershaw's (Paris Smith) life was shattered by the unexplained murder of her father Frank (Kevin Sizemore). Now having just completed her freshman year of college, Bailey returns home and is surprised to discover that her mother Tina (Vanessa Marcil) has made significant lifestyle changes. Bailey soon is shocked to learn the reason for this change: Hugo (Eddie McClintock), her mother's new boyfriend and soon-to-be husband.
Hugo instantly strikes Bailey as strange and vaguely threatening, though her concerns are ultimately ignored by Tina, who dismisses Bailey's concerns as an unwillingness to accept a new stepfather. But soon after the wedding, Bailey's suspicions increase when she notices her mother's health wavering and that Hugo seems to be making excuses to invade Bailey's privacy. Convinced Hugo is up to no good, Bailey works alongside her best friend Fee (Dara Renee) and ex-boyfriend Anders (Tanner Fontana) to uncover her stepfather's intentions. It is through her sleuthing that Bailey realizes that Hugo's depths go further than she realized. Can she convince her mother of her new husband's true nature before Hugo's plan reaches fruition?
On the surface, My Stepfather's Secret hardly seems much different than other Lifetime films in the "Someone Close to Me is In Love with a Shady Stranger" genre. However, two things allow My Stepfather's Secret to stand out among these movies and avoid coming across as oppressively stale: the strength of most of the film's characters (more on that later, trust me) and the emotional depth brought to the table by the cast. The latter exists mostly thanks to the efforts of Paris Smith, who is a sympathetic and instantly likable protagonist. In addition to being proactively quick to pick up on Hugo's true nature, Smith allows the audience to empathize with Bailey by showing how her father's death still weighs on her mind (a dynamic that is also supported by strong performances from Kevin Sivemore and Noelle E Parker in flashbacks to Bailey's childhood). Smith also shares strong chemistry with Eddie McClintock as the two find themselves in a battle of wills over Tina, and Bailey's refusal to apologize or back down in her quest to find the truth makes one of the more problematic parts of the film bearable.
This problematic element lies in Tina Kershaw, as played by Vanessa Marcil. Unfortunately, despite usually being a solid actor, Marcil is given the rather undeveloped and unbearably self-centered Tina to work with. From her opening scenes of info-dumping onto her daughter how she's met a new man, letting her take over her old bedroom, and is set to marry him in a matter of days, Tina comes off as horrendously selfish and thoughtless, with her attempts to explain herself and, as shown much later, her habit of continuously taking Hugo's side over Bailey's, only rubbing salt in the proverbial wound.
Her ultimate sympathy killing point, however, comes during an argument between mother and daughter, with Tina decrying her late husband as a failure for not leaving her behind enough savings before he was senselessly murdered. While this argument leads to a very cathartic moment of Bailey calling her mother out for being so desperate for love that she can't realize what Hugo really is, this moment leaves Tina's character irrevocably damaged, and her later attempts at redemption fall flat with the revelation that she considered her husband a failure for believing he died without getting enough money to leave her behind.
When it comes to plot, My Stepfather's Secret develops its mystery in a surprisingly solid way for a movie that makes no secret of its villain, with Hugo's history and what exactly his endgame is being revealed in brief shades throughout the film before Bailey and her friends bring everything to light. Eddie McClintock does well at making Hugo an intimidating threat, while Dara Renee and Tanner Fontana serve as a strong supporting cast who contribute well to the heart of My Stepfather's Secret—though Anders' backstory with Bailey and the reason for their breakup proves to be a slight hiccup in Bailey's otherwise completely likable character.
While Marcil's mangled character may be a hard hurdle for some viewers to get over, My Stepfather's Secret is otherwise a strong Lifetime drama. With an engaging mystery and a cast of characters that help make up for its' biggest misstep, this movie serves as a good example for other Lifetime dramas to follow. Just try to power through the urges to throttle Tina Kershaw every time she appears on screen.
Score: eight out of 10 alarm clock wedding presents.