Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Invisible Child
The land Lifetime films might seem an unexpected source of the sort of cheese we like around here. But if you take a moment to dig into its wild world of cheaters, abusers and axe-wielders, you’ll find a wealth of movies which are entertaining in spite of themselves. Some do it by virtue of their subject matter, like rushed-to-air biopics ripped from the headline, or by the superlative presence of Rob Lowe. Then, every once and a while, you’ll discover a film which is so dedicated to its premise, that it enters a rarefied level of cheese. One such film is 1999’s Invisible Child.
Our story begins when Annie Beeman (Rita Wilson) puts up an ad for a new nanny. Gillian (Tushka Bergen), a British woman with some home-care experience, answers the call, but soon learns from Annie’s husband Tim Beeman (Victor Garber) and his daughter (Mae Whitman — yes, her.) that the Beeman home is somewhat unusual. You see, Annie believes she has three children: oldest daughter Rebecca (Whitman), who goes by “Doc,” son Sam (David Dorfman) and five-year old Maggie. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Maggie does not really exist. Tim Beeman fails to explain why everyone plays along with Maggie for quite some time, so Gillian has to make the choice to flee the home or accommodate Annie’s peculiar belief.
It is only after a few embarrassing episodes in public that Tim Beeman decides to finally tell Gillian the truth. One day, five years prior, Annie came home with baby supplies and announced she’d just given birth. At first, he thought it was a joke, but as Annie carried on, protecting the illusion of Maggie became a second occupation for fear she would be sent to the loony bin. Curiously, the film characterizes Annie’s behavior as both a choice and as a symptom of a disorder. But it is never properly defined as something specific or as an aspect of some underrepresented malady like Epstein-Barr Syndrome; a popular facet of Lifetime movies at the time. Nonetheless, it treats Annie’s belief in Maggie as a solemn, serious condition that should be obvious to the viewer.
If this sounds insane, that’s part of the charm. Invisible Child treats its central conceit with the gravitas the Meredith Baxter film Kate’s Secret give to bulimia. The choice leads to a number of ridiculous moments, like Annie forcing a woman at a public restroom to wait until Maggie is done using it. The woman’s reaction is priceless. On a trip to the Santa Monica Pier, Annie believes Gillian has lost Maggie while on the Ferris Wheel. Doc volunteers to lead the search, taking Gillian around a corner for a minute and returning “hand-in-hand” with Maggie. Again, Annie’s condition is never defined, so the family’s choice to maintain the Maggie fiction never makes sense.
This is doubly true when Gillian calls in social services, but then helps the Beemans stop the social worker from interviewing Annie and Sam; who genuinely believes Maggie is invisible. Doc’s performance while talking to the social worker and her supervisors at once amazing and a chilling portrait of a sociopath in the making. Whitman infuses Doc’s ability to lie — a tactic born of her wish to support Annie’s vision of Maggie — with an unintended hint of menace. Well, it could just be her growing dissatisfaction with the whole situation, but you could easily see her employing this ability to avoid a bad grade or jail time.
In fact, the reason the movie is so watchable despite its gonzo premise is the quality of its cast. Garber, as always, is effortless as Tim Beeman. He’s a devoted husband and father who would like nothing more than for his wife to regain her senses. Whitman, only 11 or 12 here, already displays a lot of talent. Wilson, as Annie, is amazing in her dedication to the part. When she finally decides to let go of Maggie — because this whole thing is always presented as a choice — her heartfelt farewell to her fake daughter is still filled with genuine emotion.
Yes, this film is bonkers in almost everything it does.
It’s also bonkers with all the things it avoids doing. In other Lifetime movies of this ilk, Tim Beeman and Gillian might be drawn together, either causing Annie to lash out at them or leading Gillian to convince Tim Beeman that it would be best if he killed his wife. But the film never goes there, despite even including a scene where Gillian and Tim Beeman sit in a hot tub together. Instead of illicit sex, the hot tub scene cuts to the kitchen, where she watches as Tim Beeman makes a pizza. The inclusion of the social worker, who is vilified from her first moment onscreen, takes the place of Gillian or Tim Beeman as the film’s antagonist. It is a remarkable inversion of tropes as outside help is usually something Lifetime films suggest people should find. Here, she is the primary threat to Annie’s situation, even though Annie finally decides to be rid of Maggie shortly thereafter.
And while Tim Beeman never kills his wife, he does bury Maggie. The film makes a hard-stop right there, leaving several basic questions unanswered. Chief among them: what is Annie’s deal? In a similar film, there might be a title card revealing where people suffering from Annie’s affliction can find aid or a prompt to donate to some sort of awareness foundation. Here, though, there’s just a fade to black and the feeling that this might be some sort of colossal joke. But Invisible Child‘s sincere dedication to itself never wavers, leading to one of the finest cheesy films you’ll watch this year.
POST-SCRIPT: Two years ago, I interviewed Garber for the first season home video release of Legends of Tomorrow. I couldn’t resist asking him about the film and he told a wonderful story. After the film aired, his friends would tease him mercilessly about Maggie. One night while he was performing in a show, Martin Short came to his dressing room for a visit. As Garber changed out of his costume, Short sat down in a chair and immediately jumped out of it, shouting “Oh, no! I sat on Maggie!” The actor was pleased that people had discovered Invisible Child and I was please to learn that Garber understood why people like it.
Invisible Child is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms and as a budget DVD release.