“When the Bough Breaks” is so much a Lifetime original movie for the big screen that it seems odd that there are no commercial breaks during all of the plot twists. This melodrama leans heavily on TV-movie tropes but it is also clearly indebted to “Fatal Attraction” — yes, 30 years later, we’re still getting curly-headed, knife-wielding female psychopaths who go after a family unit and even (spoiler alert) their pets.
The gimmick in “When the Bough Breaks” is that the family unit is actually a couple (Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall) who want to conceive a child. Chestnut’s John is a high-powered attorney and Hall’s Laura is a high-end chef, and they live in a well-appointed house that isn’t too far from being a mansion.
Laura has miscarried three times, and they have had trouble in their marriage. For two years they have tried to find a surrogate who will carry their child, and they are running out of options: “We’re down to our last viable embryo,” John tells us helpfully.
Meanwhile, 21-year-old Anna (Jaz Sinclair, “Paper Towns”) is a waitress who is very eager to carry their baby for them, and so John and Laura ignore all of her warning signs. Anna has eyes that can shift from shy to sly in an instant, and she has a troublesome fiancée named Mike (Theo Rossi, “Sons of Anarchy”) who reveals a sleazily voyeuristic side to John when they all have dinner together. After Anna has been impregnated, she calls John in the middle of the night because Mike has been beating her up. Naturally, these wealthy people who are desperate for this baby offer to let Anna live with them, and much trouble ensues.
The first quarter or so of “When the Bough Breaks” is so focused on making the narrative serious, measured, and believable that it lacks the juice that can make a melodrama like this fun to watch. Things start to improve around the time that Mike reveals a plot of his own: “I’m the brains on this, you’re just the uterus,” he tells Anna, the first of several other hoot-worthy lines of dialogue to come.
It turns out that Anna is something of a voyeur, too, as she spies on her benefactors making love — that near-mansion of theirs is filled with full-length windows that can be looked into by jealous and prying eyes. Mike carries the burden of being the main villain in this picture only up to a point, and then it is Anna who must fulfill that role in the plot on her own, with expected results.
Anna looks young enough to be the daughter of John and Laura herself, and so when she starts to vamp John and send him inappropriate videos where she has “baby” printed on her stomach under her bra, there isn’t anything remotely sexy about it. Because Anna is clearly such an unhappy little girl type, there is nothing for John to feel conflicted about; at no moment in this movie does it feel like John is at all tempted by Anna, not even as a plot twist toward the end forces stoic John to seduce her. This is the campiest moment in the movie, next to the scene where Anna lolls in a bathtub and actually sings most of “Rock-a-bye Baby” for us up to the point when the lyrics get to “the cradle will fall.”
“When the Bough Breaks” is a very conservative film that ducks any issues that might be dramatically interesting in order to work up lame suspense sequences. Laura has an ancient cat named Miss Havisham that she has treated like a child for many years, and anyone who has ever seen a movie like this knows the kitty is going to meet a bad end.
Even though we eventually hear Anna’s very sad backstory, this movie reduces her in the last half to the usual “that bitch is crazy” figure, a stereotype that, like the villainesses to whom it’s so often applied, stubbornly refuses to die.