Director Vondie Curtis-Hall delivers an engaging original movie for Lifetime based on the true story of a baby abduction — the first such reported case in a New York hospital — where the kidnapping is the least of the drama. “Abducted: The Carlina White Story” is as much about class struggle, family bonds and nature vs. nurture as it is about a heinous crime. Dynamic performances by the pic’s three female leads carry the movie, but a clear-cut happy-ending family-reunited movie this ain’t.
The story begins in 1987, when teenage mom Joy White (Heather-Claire Nortey), with teen husband Carl (Eli Goree) at the ready, gives birth to their daughter Carlina at a Harlem hospital. Not far away, Ann Pettway (Aunjanue Ellis) is distraught after suffering her third late-term miscarriage. When Joy brings Carlina back to the hospital a few weeks later because of a fever, a scheming Pettway, dressed as a nurse and looking for a baby — any baby — encourages the young mom to go home and rest. The abduction soon garners national attention. But even as milk cartons with Carlina’s picture on it sit on the kitchen table, Pettway’s family assumes that the cute infant now named Netty is indeed her own.
Over the years, Joy and Carl’s relationship crumbles under their mutual grief, but neither ever stops looking for their daughter. Pettway, a recreational drug user, is an inconsistent, sometimes volatile, but ultimately doting parent.
At 16, Netty/Carlina (Keke Palmer) becomes pregnant, and, in order to get prenatal care, needs her social security and birth certificates, neither of which Pettway can produce. Pettway compounds the birth-certificate mystery with tales of finding Netty as a baby on her doorstep. Further digging eventually brings Joy, Carl and their daughter together after 23 years, and DNA tests prove she is indeed the long-lost Carlina. The problem, however, is that after having lived a lie for so long, Netty has trouble reconciling with the truth.
Writer Elizabeth Hunter has crafted a compelling story of a tragic crime that deftly touches on themes of hope, redemption and victimization without being preachy. In a reality-TV world, this type of story is salacious fodder, but Hall holds back on the Maury Povich-like DNA-results drama and instead focuses on the repercussions of life-altering events.
None of the actors play the stereotypical victim, especially Ellis, whose powerhouse performance takes what seems like a typical villain and gives her a murky dimensionality. Similarly, Sherri Shepherd as the adult Joy is a perfect blend of power, love, rage and heartbreak. Palmer rounds out the stellar cast as the emotionally torn Netty/Carlina. They’re all confused, flawed, wounded and real.
Ultimately, this ripped-from-the-headlines story, so fresh the ink is barely dry on the court papers, feels somewhat incomplete. Perhaps to compensate, Lifetime is airing interviews with the real-life counterparts in “Beyond the Headlines: Carlina White,” after the film’s debut.