When you imagine a Lifetime movie, what do you think of? Melodramatic acting, low production value, a half-hearted script? Well, don’t be so quick to judge. This TV movie may have all the hallmarks of a Lifetime flick, but that’s simply because the real story it was based on felt like a Lifetime movie itself.
A&E’s 2019 Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Fight to Save her Daughter is based on the story of Catherine Oxenberg, who attempted to get her daughter, India Oxenberg, out of the NXIVM self-help wellness cult that ended in the arrest of leader/self-proclaimed genius Keith Raniere and Smallville actress Allison Mack.
Oxenberg, an actress herself, is portrayed in Escaping the NXIVM Cult by Andrea Roth. She’s lured to an “Executive Success Program,” brings her aimless daughter India along, and notices something afoot as India sinks deeper and deeper a program not as innocuous as it first appeared.
As volleyball nights and coffee shop meetups give way to demands for complete submission to Rainere, Catherine fights tirelessly to free her daughter from the group that’s seduced her. Eventually, India is branded and forced into a secretive master/slave relationship. It all sounds improbably lurid, like a drama penned by a paranoid mother, except it all more or less happened as Escaping the NXIVM Cult describes.
If you watched the HBO series The Vow, which covers the same subject matter, you’ll see some familiar people. Victims and whistleblowers Sarah Edmondson, Bonnie Piesse, and Mark Vicente all appear in Escaping the NXIVM Cult, albeit the TV movie versions of them. But if you immediately dismiss TV movies, this is the one to make you reconsider.
Yes, they can be schlocky. But with the right script and the right cast, it can be a surprisingly accurate way to tell a story. It feels like a melodrama because the emotions involved were, in fact, melodramatic. Of particular note is Peter Facinelli’s take on Raniere himself. The actor, best known for playing Dr. Carlile Cullen in the Twilight series, gives Raniere the same steely unsettledness that’s genuinely unnerving.
Escaping the NXIVM Cult leaves Netflix on June 30, but before it goes it’s a must-see for fans of cult media, documentaries, or just life’s stranger-than-fiction moments. It’s the epitome of a Lifetime movie, and for that reason it’s the perfect medium for this story.
Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Fight to Save Her Daughter is streaming on Netflix until June 30.