Review: ‘Dying to Belong’

Hijinks at college tries taking a serious turn when a sorority pledge tumbles to her doom in a sorority initiation prank, but Ron McGee's teleplay doesn't do much convincing. Characters are prop, situations are unoriginal, and a stand-pat resolution isn't worth waiting around for; to boot, director William A. Graham comes up with nothing to helpful. Attractive Lisa Connors (Hilary Swank), gets a bid to her mom's (Isabella Hoffmann) old sorority, Phi Gamma Beta, as does her self-doubting roomy Shelby (Jenna Von Oy). Lisa meets Steven (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), good-looking editor of the college's newspaper and who really believes a college paper is allowed freedom of the press.

This fanciful conceit aside, Steven is earnest to a fault and doesn’t like this pledge week stuff at all. May have something to do with him not, apparently, being in a fraternity.

More, he’s sure that that ugly business last year with the Phi Gamma who vanished (bit of dramatic cheating here over a threatening camion) indicates the sororities are illegally hazing pledges, who won’t say anything because they’ve sworn in blood to the white rose.

Lisa and Shelby take on the appalling demands of initiation, and how the college authorities could miss what’s going on isn’t clear. Anyway, that nice women’s dean (Jennifer Warren, who could phone in the part) would report any misdemeanors. Or would she?

Courageous journalist Steven, without the approval of faculty adviser Mr. Ridgely (GregAlan Williams), pens a fiery editorial about hazing. People react badly. Some fraternity toughs beat him up, which is terrible as he seems to be the entire staff of the Daily Crusader.

The Phi members are an attractive lot, either blondes or brunettes — redheads and non-whites needn’t wait for a bid — even if they don’t act too bright. The pledges are under the direction of Drea (Sarah Chalke, who’s pretty when she smiles, but flashes her familiar scowl when the character’s crossed), and they’re required to undergo quite a hunk of mumbo-jumbo so they can learn the deep significance of being a Phi Gamma.

Seeing Shelby about to be humiliated, Lisa gamely decides the sorority can do without her. Steven’s big moment comes when Lisa turns up at his lonely office and he takes off his shirt before the scene fades.

No one’s doing much acting, and director Graham seems hung up on the premise that the telepic’s serious. Swank’s appealing, but the character’s a blank; Gosselaar gives his role the old college try, but nothing’s there. Von Oy, suggesting there could be more to her part than is apparent, doesn’t find it.

Amanda Wilmshurst plays the Phi Gammas’ leader Terry, and she’s pretty.

Camerawork and editing are perfunctory, and Roger S. Crandal’s production design’s conventional. Michael Tavera’s score is monotonous.

Telefilm, dwelling as it does on the dangers of hazing, also suggests that, despite President Clinton’s goal, not everyone should go to college. Surely not these silly characters.

Dying to Belong

NBC, Mon. Feb. 24, 9 p.m.


Filmed in Salt Lake City by Jean Abounader Prods., Hallmark Entertainment Distribution Co. and Von Zerneck/Sertner Films. Exec producers, Frank Von Zerneck, Robert M. Sertner, Jean Abounader; producers, Randy Sutter, Greg Prange; co-producer, Ted Babcock; director, William A. Graham; writer, Ron McGee; camera, Robert Steadman.


Editor, Scott Powell; art director, Mark Hofeling; sound, Richard I. Birnbaum; music, Michael Tavera; production designer, Roger S. Crandall; casting, Susan Glicksman, Fern Orenstein. 2 HOURS


Cast: Hilary Swank, Sarah Chalke, Jenna Von Oy, Laurel Holloman, Jennifer Warren, GregAlan Williams, Tracy Middendorf, Isabella Hoffmann, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Amanda Wilmshurst, Michael Flynn, Melissa Pace, Monica Moench, Scott Wilkensen, Joey Miyashima, Trent Hanson, Joy Haynes, Dorine Maze, Kendra Jones, Dallen Gettling, Jan Hanks, Jeff Johnson, Amy Newbold, Jim Platt, Brad Jessey.
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