The XX Factor

Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)

A scene from The Assault.

Dana Starbard / Dana Starbard Ph

Did you follow the Steubenville rape case and think, “Eh. Needs more firepower”? The Lifetime original movie The Assault is for you.

A Lifetime PR rep describes The Assault, which premieres Saturday, as “ripped from actual news headlines of a case in Steubenville, Ohio” (as well as “other shockingly similar incidents in communities across the country”). But the true facts of the case—girl from across the river is raped by small-town high school football stars, evidence of the assault spreads between the town’s teenagers on social media, and a rift erupts between the town’s football fans and victim’s advocates—are too banal for Lifetime’s melodramatic impulse. So the film begins with the victim, Sam (in the film version, she’s a cheerleader), walking onto the school football field in the middle of a game, pouring gasoline over her head, and lighting herself on fire.

Rape, in the world of The Assault, is not a sufficiently dramatic event to carry a 90-minute storyline. So only after Sam (Makenzie Vega) shows up in the ER with a smoldering arm—she was saved from self-immolation when the team QB (and her ex-boyfriend) tackled her to the ground and smothered her gasoline-covered body in the grass, naturally—do police learn that she had been assaulted at a party the weekend before, and begin investigating the crime. (In Steubenville, the victim and her parents just called the cops.) And “rape victim” is not a traumatic enough backstory to get Lifetime viewers to sympathize with Sam. Her mother died recently, we learn as she cries out from her hospital bed: “Ever since it happened, I can’t. I can’t sleep. I can’t feel anything … I miss mom.” (The fiery visuals in the movie are dramatic, but the dialogue, not so much: One particularly mind-numbing exchange, between a detective and a football player, reads: “I need you to come with me.” “Why?” “We need to talk.” “Why?” “Let’s discuss that in private.”)

When not aggressively fanning the flames on specifics plucked from Steubenville, the film quashes complicating details to make for a more straightforward moral universe. Issues of race and power are flattened: While all of the boys accused of raping Sam are white (unlike in the real-life case), the team’s coach and the detective assigned to investigate—the only characters in positions of power in the film—are black (also, they’re siblings). Any whiff of corruption in the case is distilled into a clash of personalities: The coach covers up his players’ misdeeds, because his moral code is football! But the detective (Khandi Alexander, last seen as Olivia Pope’s mother) works really hard to fight the power and crack the case, because just one woman can make a difference! The potentially damaging effects of social media on victims are similarly neutralized: Photo and video artifacts of Sam’s assault are not published by a pesky local blogger, a la Steubenville; Sam herself teams up with a fellow student blogger to share the evidence with the world and encourage witnesses to come forward, so the result is framed as empowering, not retraumatizing. And the complicated concepts of intoxication and consent raised by Steubenville are ultimately ignored in favor of a clearer standard: After an hour of back-and-forth between detective, victim, and suspects as to whether Sam was sober enough to consent to sex, the case is finally resolved when the detective comes across an unrealistically airtight piece of evidence: A video of a crew of football players pinning Sam down on a bed at a party and removing her clothes while she struggles and screams “I don’t want this!” and “No!”  (In video evidence filed in the Steubenville case, the victim appeared unresponsive or was mumbling incoherently.)

If you think the traumatic events Sam is subjected to over the course of the 90-minute film sound incredible, just wait for her recovery. When Sam’s fellow cheerleaders shun her for turning against the squad (and being a big slut), Sam slips easily into a new BFF relationship with the blogger. (To signify her outsider status from the cheerleading clique, she is styled in a series of questionable hats.) And when Sam finally gets her hands on the videotape that shows she said “no,” she steps onto the football field again, plays the tape, and compels all the townspeople to stand in respect (and the players to remove their helmets in shame).

As for the arm that was supposedly horribly burned when she tried to kill herself? Once Sam leaves the hospital in the film’s first moments, she never mentions it again; if she has scars, we never see them. All of this adds up to a bizarre vision of the perfect victim, who must both go through the worst experiences possible and come out smiling bigger than ever. In the Lifetime universe, rape is very bad, law enforcement is very good, and even football players can respect victims of violence—but only if the victim has said “no” very loudly on videotape. OK, maybe that part is believable.