A mother’s will can’t be stopped in “Lullaby,” director Darrell James Roodt’s alternately nail-biting and preposterous thriller set in deepest Johannesburg. Without Melissa Leo putting heart and soul into her starring role as an American mom trying to rescue her son from the clutches of an evil drug lord, pic would risk being laughed off the screen. With her, it remains eminently watchable and a solid bet for cablers worldwide.
A long stretch from any of Roodt’s previous work (“Meisie,” “Yesterday”), “Lullaby” merely recycles urban drug-movie cliches, reframing the drama from the standpoint of an outsider pulled into an extremely dangerous situation on maternal instincts alone. Casting Leo (whose profile has at long last been enhanced this year with the Sundance grand prize-winning “Frozen River”) reps the pic’s most inspired move.
Pic is tense from the start, as Stephanie (Leo), a waitress in Lynchburg, Tenn., wires cash to son Steven (Renier Basson), who looks like he’s wasting it all on skuzzy-looking hooker Tina (Lisa Marie Schneider). Couple’s bedroom romp is rudely interrupted by thugs who pummel Tina and kidnap Steven.
Three months inexplicably pass before drug entrepreneur T-Boy (Joey Dedio) calls Stephanie out of the blue, demanding cash for Steven’s freedom. Scrounging up what she can at home, she leaves her hubby dozing at home and wings to Johannesburg — an act that would seem to drain any available funds she might have. Devised by screenwriters Ivan Milborrow, Donald A. Barton and Michael Sellers as a woman who won’t be stopped, Stephanie finds Tina, the kind of character whose job is to get the heroine in as much hot water as possible.
Tina proves so annoying that even though she’s the key link between Stephanie and T-Boy, her exit from the movie becomes more desirable by the reel. Stephanie is sent on numerous wild-goose chases by T-Boy, making outrageous money demands (“Get me $5,000 in 20 minutes!”), all out of revenge for having his property, Tina, get knocked up by Steven.
Between T-Boy’s orders and Tina’s impulse to rob, Stephanie gets pulled into a cycle of action scenes that are a long, long way from Lynchburg. Pic’s course is too predictable at every step, down to Stephanie’s final gambit against T-Boy, who’s as evil as his facial growth suggests.
Leo’s ability to bring all her acting resources to the needs of any scene, no matter how ludicrous, saves the movie — one of the hardest things any actor can do. Schneider and Dedio are cartoons of white folks gone bad in the South African ‘hood, while Basson is asked to scream a lot.
Lenser Jamie Ramsey’s images get the now-tiresome color desaturation treatment, which doesn’t increase pic’s realism as much as several impressive Johannesburg location choices. Alun Richards’ score blandly re-does the usual TV thriller riffs.