"Natalee Holloway" is the kind of made-for-TV movie that's hard to watch, because it's every parent's nightmare: your child turns up missing and is presumed dead. But one gets the feeling that this movie was made, in part, to get the word out to parents and their teens to keep such things from happening to others.
Holloway, you may recall, was the Alabama high school senior who went to Aruba with more than a hundred classmates and too-few chaperones to celebrate graduation. She partied and drank too much at Carlos 'n' Charlie's in Oranjestad, then got into a car with three local men, one of whom pretended to be a visiting student from the Netherlands. She was last seen that night of May 30, 2005.
As the police and everyone on this little Dutch island in the Caribbean told her mother when she flew there to look for her daughter, "It's a peaceful island. No one has ever been seriously hurt or killed here. She'll turn up. " But she didn't.
Part of the pain in watching this story comes from knowing what's going to happen before it happens, because details were in every newspaper and on every news broadcast. Aruba came under fire for its indifferent and sloppy handling of the case, and Natalee's parents at one point tried to drum up public support for a boycott of this little tourist-dependent nation. Nothing worked. What happened to Natalee and the disposition of her body is still a mystery.
But it's also painful to watch because, in a way, Natalee Holloway died of stupidity. This was a smart girl who was on track to go to college and med school who did what 17- to 21-year olds do all too often: either drink so much that it affects their judgment in profound ways, or fail to be wary of strangers. In bars smart people often do stupid things. But seeing the way that this little trip was framed by the filmmakers, it's hard not to conclude that it was just as stupid to let a large group of students that age go to a tropical country were the drinking age is 18, without enough chaperones. I've taken students abroad, and 20 can be a handful for two adults. We never are told how many adults were part of Natalee's group, but we only see one--the organizer--and he's not present the last night of the trip when the kids were letting it all hang out. Personally, I can understand an academic trip with social time built in, but a completely "fun" trip for high school students to celebrate their graduation? Even without knowing this tragic story, it sounds like a recipe for disaster.
A grown-up Tracy Pollan, who played Alex's girlfriend Ellen on "Family Ties," does a nice job as Natalee's mother, Beth Holloway Twitty. Because of the subject matter, it's probably both an easy piece of method acting and an impossibly difficulty one. Though Beth is supported by other adults in her life--her husband, Jug (Grant Show) and best friend Carol (Catherine Dent)--everything really falls on her. Apart from Natalee (Amy Gumenick), who's on-camera in the beginning and in flashbacks with the three men who pick her up-Joran Van Der Sloot (Jacques Strydom), Deepak Kalpoe (Clayton Evertson), and his brother Satish-the main focus is on Beth and her attempts to get to the bottom of what happened. As she tries to investigate, Joran's father (Sean Cameron Michael) tries to obfuscate, and the local detective (Sean Higgs) drags his feet.
"Natalee Holloway" wasn't shot in Aruba for obvious reasons. Instead, it was shot in Cape Town, South Africa, and so the beach scenes are actually of the Atlantic rather than the Caribbean, and street scenes are cleverly shot to hide Cape Town's bustling population.
For the most part, the teleplay is okay enough to where we willingly continue to follow along. Clunky lines pop up now and then, though-as when early on one of the adults says, "If anyone deserves to go on this trip, it's Natalee," and later her brother remarks while watching a newscast, "Those guys on TV, they look like jerks. Why would Natalee go anywhere with them?" That, of course, is the big question, and the answer is in whatever she was drinking . . . and whether Joran slipped her a date-rape drug. But before Natalee even leaves the club, she's isolated from her friends and the rest of the Alabama group and letting Joran do a Jell-O shot off her bare belly. So what happened to the basic rule of high school and college students abroad? The buddy system? Never let someone go off by him or herself? And again, where was the chaperone this last night of their trip? Those questions are ultimately as nagging as any raised by this TV-movie, which is based on Holloway Twitty's book, Remembering Natalee.
"Natalee Holloway" has the feel of a TV movie. It has the limited sets, the as-the-crow-flies narrative through-line, by-the-numbers scenic construction, and production values that are the result of a few corners cut. But while some TV movies are just plain bad, this one at least makes you watch all the way through . . . though it's painful to see, in so many ways.
The picture quality is actually pretty good for a TV movie, with bright colors, fairly distinct margins and minimal grain. "Natalee Holloway" is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Apart from the nightclub scene, everything is dialogue, and so the English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is more than enough to deliver a decent movie experience. Subtitles are in English and French.
An insert is supplied by the Natalee Holloway Resource Center which tells about the Center and its goal of assisting families of missing persons, along with "Top Tips for Safer Travels." The only other extra is a fairly short and fairly superficial "Remembering Natalee" featurette. I thought we'd learn more about the girl's character, but we really don't. What we get are the usual blend of cast members talking about the movie and basically repeating what we've just seen. The real Beth Holloway Twitty appears on camera and says that Natalie was filmed an hour before she left that bar, and at that point she was completely in control. And to be out-of-control an hour later? She had to be drugged, her mother thinks, and there had to be a cover-up based on the stone wall they ran into with police.
As Lifetime movies go, this one is pretty standard. But because the case was so high profile, "Natalee Holloway" feels like a more substantial film than it probably is. Those based-on-a-true-story movies will do it to you every time. I'm sure that Mrs. Holloway Twitty hopes young people will watch and somehow become more cautious. I hope so too.