Last night at 8 p.m. I watched a Lifetime movie that's the first in a month-long series called "Ripped from the Headlines!" (though they've certainly done fact-based films before this, some of them quite good), which got shot under the clunky title "The NXIVM Cult: A Mother's Nightmare" and was shown under the even clunkier title "Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother's Fight to Save Her Daughter." The non-fiction book it was based on was simply called "Captive," which would have worked better for the film, and was written by Catherine Oxenberg. She was apparently the product of a minor noble family in Europe who came to the U.S., pursued a career as an actress and got a small but recurring role on the TV series "Dynasty." As the film opens she and her daughter India (Jasper Polish) are living in a large home in Malibu that looks like it was built by someone out of an all-white Lego set, and India's dad is in the picture but Catherine is in the process of divorcing him and raising India and her two younger sisters Remy (Gabrielle Trudel) and Francesca (Isabelle D. Trudel - well, that's one way of making your cast members look like sisters: cast real-life sisters!) as a single parent. She's also trying to break out of acting and into writing by selling a screenplay called "Royal Exiles," and when a neighbor tells her about a new self-help seminar called ESP - which here stands for "Executive Success Program" - Catherine not only goes herself but takes her daughter.
Catherine is put off by the overall air of the event - particularly the veneration with which the people running the seminar speak of the "Vanguard," their term for the CEO of ESP, and the way the people running it wear different-colored sashes to signify how far up in the program they've risen, sort of like the different-colored belts in Japanese martial arts. But India comes out of the program with goop-eyed admiration and within a couple of commercial breaks she's signed up for the $2,500 advanced training available only at the Albany, New York headquarters of ESP's parent company, NXIVM. India gets sucked in farther and farther into what we're beginning to realize is a particularly nasty cult built around Keith Raniere (Peter Facinelli, who previously played an equally slimy 1-percenter on the TV series "Supergirl"), a scam artist and, eventually, a sexual pervert as well. As presented in both the dramatization and the documentary, NXIVM wasn't a "cult" in the sense of offering a religious or quasi-religious belief system, but Raniere seems to have pulled together aspects of a lot of other private mind-control operations, including L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology and the 1970's operation EST. It also uses a tactic from ordinary multi-level marketing: the people in NXIVM were pressured into recruiting their family members, friends and anyone else into the program, and were given a commission on the course fees paid by anyone they signed up. All of this could probably have stayed under the radar of the authorities for years except that, like many a cult leader before him, Raniere started indulging himself sexually, and like such other cult-leading horndogs as Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh and Warren Jeffs, he indoctrinated his top women staffers to think that servicing him sexually was the highest honor he and his organization could give them.
If there's a flaw with "Escaping the NXIVM Cult" it's that a 90-minute Lifetime time slot (two hours less commercials) simply isn't enough for this fascinating story. Writer Adam Mazer and director Lisa Robinson compress the time frame from seven years to two. We really don't get the insight we want into why India Oxenberg fell so hard for NXIVM's line of B.S. - though the one thing they do for her in the real world is buy her a coffeehouse to run after her previous attempt at a home-based muffin-baking business had gone nowhere - and I also found myself wondering how India's two younger sisters handled being increasingly neglected by their mom as she conducted her obsessive quest to bring her oldest daughter back from the cult. (It's probably much the way the non-prodigal brother of the prodigal son felt when the prodigal returned and their dad brought out the fatted calf.) Nonetheless, "Escaping the NXIVM Cult" emerged as strong drama and evidence that cults are functioning now, and they're getting slicker and subtler, locating in and among suburban neighborhoods and blending in instead of living in clapboard houses in the middle of nowhere and wearing robes. Had Ranieri been a bit smarter and less sex-obsessed, he probably could have kept the organization going to the end of his life and even beyond, as L. Ron Hubbard and his successor David Miscavige have done with Scientology.