Spelling, Martin do good doing bad

September 26, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Tori Spelling co-starring in a movie? The same Tori Spelling who seems barely up to playing fifth or sixth fiddle as Donna on "Beverly Hills, 90210"? That Tori Spelling is starring in a movie?

Yes, she is. And the news is that Spelling is not half bad in NBC's "A Friend to Die For," a surprisingly deft little made-for-TV movie airing at 9 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

Spelling's co-star is Kellie Martin, once known as Becca of "Life Goes On" and currently plugging along as Christy on CBS' replacement series about a turn-of-the-century missionary, "Christy." Martin is the better of the two young actresses, but they both do good work in this tale of a teen relationship gone wrong.

The setting is a high school in an upper-middle-class community somewhere in Southern California. Stacy Lockwood (Spelling) is the school's queen bee. She's blond, beautiful and popular.

She's also cruel the way only a privileged teen-ager can be cruel.

"Run along now, we don't feed strays here," she says belligerently to one unattractive girl who approaches Stacy and her charmed circle of friends at school.

If you are thinking about the teen cult film, "Heathers," you're on ,, the money. Stacy could almost have been one of the Heathers.

The "almost" is the measure of Spelling's performance. The challenge of her role was to make Stacy seem like the golden-girl-as-wicked-queen without taking her over the top into the land of camp where "Heathers" lives. NBC does not do camp with its Monday night movies; this is a fact-based story and the network wants you to believe it. Spelling meets the challenge and makes her Stacy believable.

Martin, though, makes her character both believable and interesting. She plays Angela Delvecchio, an attractive but somewhat mousy girl who has big dreams.

After hearing the high school principal urge students to "be all that you can be," Angela is determined to be a cheerleader and to join the elite social service club, the Larks. Like everything else that matters in the school, it is run by Stacy.

At first, Stacy seems to accept Angela as one of her followers, but that doesn't last. Before long, Angela finds herself back outside the inner circle, with her dreams of accomplishment seeming to slip away.

A last, desperate attempt to win Stacy's friendship goes haywire, and Angela stabs Stacy to death.

Martin's challenge as an actress was the big one: to convince us that anyone played by sweet, little Kellie could stab a classmate. Martin not only does it, she makes it look easy.

She takes Angela in steps. At first, Angela is a lot like the Becca character Martin played on "Life Goes On" -- all optimism, sweetness and good-girl light.

But then you start to notice a little weirdness in the eyes. Maybe the fire to excel burns a little too hot here? Maybe she's getting a little obsessive about Stacy? Maybe she's a little dangerous?

It is ultimately Martin's performance that makes "A Friend to Die For" deliver the dramatic goods. It's not a great film by any stretch. But it's an involving one that has some worthwhile things to say about the hell that high school can become for some students, and the wrongheaded values often taught in the name of excellence.

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