Everyone has a story worth telling; that’s the perspective of actress Jenna-Wheeler Hughes. She’s made a successful career of cultivating this approach in her work. Lifetime TV is known for telling women’s stories and they’re not always the most obvious ones. While the main characters in the Crime/Mystery/Thriller The Rival are involved in a jealous and tumultuous relationship, it’s Jenna’s portrayal of the young Sarah Adams that brings some of the most grounded and giving moments to the film. Directed by the Oscar nominated and Cable Ace Winning Douglas Jackson, The Rival is a multi-layered tale of the complexities of having a child and the human dynamics attached to it. Sarah Adams is a center point between child and adults, giving a perspective unique to all of the characters in this film…and skillfully supplied by the earthy performance of the actress portraying her.
The Rival provides a dramatic backdrop to one couple’s journey to have a child. Tracy Nelson (Yours, Mine, & Ours. Square Pegs, Down and Out in Beverly Hills) appears as Alice, a woman shot in a robbery who as a result becomes unable to have children. With her husband George, she enlists Jennifer to be a surrogate mother and enable their family to expand. Alice becomes consumed with jealously when she suspects her spouse and their surrogate of becoming overly “in tune” with each other. Jennifer’s daughter Sarah not only finds herself in this increasingly uncomfortable environment but confused and disappointed by the idea that this yet to be born baby will not be a part of her life. Sarah brings the unencumbered positivity of youth while the presence of life’s complexity looms increasingly near. Jenna informs, “We wanted to keep the character as innocent and free spirited as possible. Sarah was not an anxious character, and we wanted this to show in the film. We talked about making Sarah as happy as a child could be in her interesting situation. Moving in with strangers and preparing for your mother to give away your new born sibling could affect a child in many ways, but we wanted Sarah to stay positive for her mother throughout the film.” There’s a palpable naivety to the performance of Wheeler-Hughes but it might best be described as happy without instances of caution.
There are a number of scenes in which Sarah is the instigator of the dialogue between the parental characters; giving them a springboard to express their reservations and concerns. The manner in which Jenna subtly prompts these scenes is sublime. Upon Jennifer and Sarah’s initial arrival to Alice and George’s home, it’s Sarah who warmly greets the couple and sets a tone for this uncommon group and the character herself. Sarah is consciously striving to make the situation a positive one. This hints at her approaching maturity and questioning of why things are occurring. When Alice chides young Sarah for playing with a stuffed animal from the crib, it’s the awareness of her jealousy that we see in the slight tones of Jenna’s performance. Perhaps nowhere more pronounced is the character (and actress’s) contribution to the tone of the story than in Sarah’s heart to heart talks with her mother concerning why this new child will not be a baby brother or sister to her. Displaying that it’s often more what you communicate without words, Sarah’s sadness establishes the emotion of these scenes.
As one of the youngest cast members of The Rival, Jenna Wheeler-Hughes proves that any character can command the scene, regardless of age. The story is one of guessing the true nature of those in your sphere. Contrasting the interaction of the film, Jenna notes, “Alice, the crazy killer in the film was played by Tracy Nelson who was honestly one of the most supportive and nicest people you could work with. She was genuinely interested in getting to know me and help me. It was a great experience working with her. The difference between who she is in our film and who she truly is signifies what a great actress she is. I really enjoyed being the wide-eyed girl in this frightening story.”