She Wants More - Movie Review Essay: Lisa (1990)

She Wants More
by Jen Johans

Using a breathy voice to read back the license plate owned by the hot older guy that her best friend crushes on to the DMV, Lisa (Staci Keanan) tells the man on the other end of the phone that she wants more info on the man behind "WNTMORE." A trick that the precocious, boy-crazy fourteen-year-old learned by watching Magnum P.I. — which makes her think that she and her friend Wendy (Tanya Fenmore) could be real life private eyes — all we have to do is spend a few minutes with Lisa to discover that this is a girl who wants more, wants much more herself.

The daughter of an overprotective single mother (played by Cheryl Ladd) who was forced to leave her whole family behind when she became pregnant as a teen, now that Lisa is becoming a woman, the florist is determined not to let her make the same mistakes. Having invoked a rule that her daughter isn't allowed to date until she's sixteen, Katherine (Ladd) is unwilling to break it when Lisa and Wendy are invited by classmates on a double date.

Taking Wendy's declaration that everyone's going to think she's weird if she has to wait two more years to date to heart, the lonely Lisa focuses most of her romantic energy falling for and then following unavailable men like "WNTMORE" around, not yet realizing that perhaps such men are better appreciated as mere objects of fantasy.

Gathering intel and a picture of the men along with late '80s heartthrobs like George Michael and Tom Petty to place inside her top secret crush scrapbook, Lisa finds a new object of desire in the handsome, polished Ken doll ready stranger Richard (D.W. Moffett) who she bumps into in the dark. Returning home from a grocery errand for Katherine, Lisa might've had her mother's keychain with the mace ready for her protection but once Richard smiles, she opts to use her charm instead.

"Last night," she tells Wendy, "I met the most beautiful man I've ever seen." Using her wiles once again to track him down, rather than just file away his info in her scrapbook, she grows bolder. Calling him for an anonymous chat, the teenager smooths out the girlish edges of her voice and drops her tone down to a soft purr.

"Hi, Rick. It's been a long time," Lisa begins with confidence since right now, she's the one in control. Continuing to phone the stranger, once Wendy finds out what her friend's been doing, she warns Lisa not to let her guard down but by then, things have escalated enough that we fear she might be too late.

In Gary Sherman's 1990 thriller, we know long before Lisa does that even though her first instinct upon meeting the man was to reach for her charm, she should've gone for the mace instead. Richard, it seems, might be GQ cover handsome but as screenwriters Sherman and Karen Clark reveal as soon as the movie begins, he's a real lady killer in every sense of the word.

In an intriguing link that's never explored as well as it should be, Richard, like Lisa, has a history of stalking his victims from afar and then phoning them, not to flirt as she does, but to leave a message that he's in their apartment and going to kill them. A delusional murderer who sets a romantic stage for each of the slayings in a way that's earned the man the moniker Candlelight Killer, there's a fascinating scene in Sherman's movie where Lisa and Wendy follow Richard, hoping to snap a photo at the exact same time he's eyeing his next target.

What could've been a mystery about voyeurism, attraction, and how quickly and devastatingly an idol can fall for grace a la Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt or Caruso's Disturbia, turns into a veritable Lifetime movie as it continues, once Richard predictably mistakes Katherine for his mystery caller. Likewise, introducing us to Katherine's own secret love interest before vanishing him from sight, we can't help but wonder how much better Lisa might've been if it had compared and contrasted the issues of trust and control in the mother's real relationship with the same points in her daughter's burgeoning faux one.

Although it shortchanges us on real suspense by refusing to let the girls in on the fact that Richard might be the murderer until we've been deposited into a ridiculously fast denouement, the film never fully spirals out of control, thanks to a wholly convincing turn by Staci Keanan who anchors Lisa by conveying complex, multilayered emotions throughout in this, her feature debut.

Revealing too much too soon regarding Richard, when it might've been more interesting if we weren't sure which one of a handful of the girls' crushes was the killer, as a mystery lover and writer, my mind was involuntarily flooded with ideas as to how Sherman and Clark could've turned their otherwise clever script around. In that sense, it's reminiscent of the way that Magnum P.I. spurred Lisa to think outside the box when tracking down a suspect's identity. Even though it doesn't quite work overall, thanks to a spellbinding performance by a wise beyond her years Keanan and a few ingenious plot points that are introduced (before they're sadly buried), it's well worth a look for genre fans.

On the one hand wise about its subject matter, as it prepares to toss its characters to the wolves, Lisa tries overly hard to manufacture melodrama. Going from A to Z at the drop of a hat in terms of Lisa's relationship with her mother, it's admittedly awkward to see it change from friendly and sweet to dubiously sour in an instant before Katherine makes a halfhearted attempt to write everything off on hormones.

But even though the film feels like a museum piece now with its old technology of home phones, answering machines, and no caller ID, it could work just as well today in the Instagram era. Yet, in any setting, Lisa's ideas are timeless, as are the struggles between girl and friend, mother and daughter, woman and man, and stalker and prey.

Conceived by Sherman and Clark, the film definitely understands that — in the words of Megan Abbott's Dare Me — "there's something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls," especially when they're as bright as Lisa, they can't wait to grow up, they want more, and they're not afraid to put down the scrapbook and camera to call up and ask for it.

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