“Do you want it to stop?” Elizabeth Smart asks. She is facing the camera directly, making eye contact. We are listening to the sound of her being raped for the first time — in Lifetime’s dramatization of her 9-month abduction, starring Alana Boden as Smart and Skeet Ulrich as kidnapper and rapist Brian David Mitchell.
In what became a much publicized story of disappearance and reappearance, Smart was then just 14 years old, a pretty blonde teenager in Salt Lake City, Utah. One night in 2002, Mitchell dragged her out of bed at knifepoint, marched her into the woods, and “married” her, declaring that he was a prophet named Immanuel who had been called to take her as a wife. She had never had sex before; she had not even begun to menstruate. As Boden’s Smart is shrieking and pleading, the camera pans slowly away from them and cuts to the real-life Smart. “Do you want it to stop?” she asks, looking at the audience. “So did I.”
It does stop, for us. It doesn’t for Smart — and wouldn’t for nine months.
“I Am Elizabeth Smart” is both very like and very unlike the canon of Lifetime films, which frequently focus on a “woman in peril” and subjects already in the public eye. Its chronicle of Smart’s kidnapping and subsequent captivity is harrowing in the slightly pulpy, slightly overwrought way that most of its stories are. From a dramatic standpoint, the film probably leans a bit too hard on suspenseful string music and gold-tinted flashbacks; Ulrich is so revolting, as Mitchell, that he’s enthusiastically and a bit distractingly chewing the scenery. But Smart’s presence casts the production into an entirely different light. It’s the story of a woman in peril, narrated by and featuring the woman in peril herself, telling the audience what really happened to her and how it felt. The perspective elevates the dramatization from a titillating scary story to spoken-word horror.
Partly this is because Smart herself is an extraordinary human being. In the 15 years since she was abducted and then recovered, Smart has made it a kind of mission to speak publicly about her ordeal and advocate for victims of kidnapping and sexual assault. Her on-screen presence is calm and poised with an inner light that is hard to imitate. And partly this is because it is so rare, even now, for the victim of sexual assault to so thoroughly own the narrative around her abduction. Smart, for a variety of reasons, has managed to escape the typical matrix of doubt and judgment that surrounds survivors.
A topic she has returned to again and again — it was even the subject of a New Yorker profile about her — is that she was not a victim of Stockholm’s Syndrome. “Everything I did, I did to survive,” she says, both in that profile and in “I Am Elizabeth Smart.” As she relates in the film, for the nine months she was Mitchell’s captive, she plotted her escape — listening, watching, and waiting for the right moment.
Smart seems to be defending herself from straw-man criticisms, but perhaps she is so vehement because mostly she is defending herself from herself — from her own shame and horror at what occurred, and the long tail of self-recrimination that would judge her for cooperating in order to survive. The title, with its bold declarative statement of self, is a statement of truth that at different points in the narrative could either condemn her or liberate her. More than once during her captivity, Elizabeth has the choice to draw others into her panic, and more than once, she opts not to. In those moments, the camera zooms in on Boden’s face, and the background around her grows fuzzy: The isolation of trauma, illustrated. Smart says to the camera that she was afraid for her life, and for the safety of her family. But another truth emerges: This 14-year-old girl knew she was strong enough to handle Brian David Mitchell, even as he was torturing her, until she could escape on her own terms.
Cinematically, her narration serves to interrupt the typical patterns of this kind of movie — which, if untethered from the real-life details, is just another thriller about how terrible violence against women is banal and ubiquitous. Stories of abused women are both remarkably female-centric and at the same time often draw in a viewer with the promise of some titillation; that edge of erotic fear, anticipating consummation, is both horrible and enticing. The camera always cuts before anything really bad happens, right? Smart sees you looking at “her” — and she looks back, preventing the viewer from abstracting her rape(s) into just sound effects and shadows. Smart’s voiceover serves as a bodily rearrangement of the convenient grooves this narrative might otherwise take. There is no redemption for Brian David Mitchell, or for his delusional “first wife” Hepzibah, real name Wanda Barzee (Deirdre Lovejoy), whose fanatical devotion to “Immanuel” makes his abuse of Elizabeth possible. And when Boden as Smart returns home, she doesn’t shed a tear. Instead she coolly observes the bedroom she was abducted from nine months earlier and decides she will sleep in there alone. It’s hard not to weep — not because she is suffering, though she did; but because she shouldn’t have had to be quite so strong, and yet she was anyway.
Of course, “I Am Elizabeth Smart” is a Lifetime movie, with all the connotations that implies. And on the other hand, it is remarkable because it is a Lifetime movie; it is a remarkable Lifetime movie. Much like Smart herself, it is restrained, unpretentious, and direct. And to the cast and crew’s credit, nothing about it diminishes Smart’s ordeal or plays it up for manufactured horrors; it simply is, which is plenty horrible enough. It’s not quite “Room,” the 2015 Oscar-winning film about another captive girl plotting her escape. But in its way, it is a startling, bold film.