This is what happens at 2 a.m. when your husband’s out of town, the kids are asleep and the dog has to go out. You step onto the back porch and watch as the pooch disappears into the darkness. Then you hear it. The back door, closing behind you.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, what if it locked, and I couldn’t get back in?’ ” says Jaime Primak Sullivan, recalling that moment from four years ago. The door hadn’t locked but . . . what if?
“The kids are too small to get the door open, and I don’t have my phone,” she says, recounting how the imaginary scenario spiraled out of control. What if criminals got into the house, and she couldn’t risk running to a neighbor because the kids were in immediate danger? Could she fight? Alone? Unarmed? And how far would she go?
By the time the dog ambled back onto the porch, she’d envisioned just how she’d break back into her home and save her kids. She also had the premise for a spine-tingling film.
That movie, the new thriller “Breaking In,” stars Gabrielle Union as a mom pitted against thugs holding her two children (Ajiona Alexus and Seth Carr) hostage. It hits theaters Friday, May 11, just before Mother’s Day.
Odd timing? Not if you consider this strange fact of filmdom -- moviegoers love tales of mothers in peril.
THE MOTHER OF ALL PLOT TWISTS
There are plenty of films where Dad fights to save the kids (Liam Neeson’s “Taken” franchise, for instance). But it’s somehow more dramatic, more delicious, when Mom does the saving.
“There’s nothing like a mother’s love, that drive to protect her children.” says Sullivan, a New Jersey native who starred with her husband and three children in the Bravo reality series “Jersey Belle,” before dreaming up the story for “Breaking In” and serving as executive producer.
It’s primal -- a mama bear protecting her cubs -- which may explain in part its universal appeal onscreen.
When we first see Union’s character, Shaun Russell, she’s the prototypical mom, juggling personal issues (hints of marital discord), family duties (in the wake of her father’s death she and her kids must pack up his country house) and ornery teens.
“Is that a request or an order?” her daughter challenges, when Shaun asks her to do a chore.
“I’m your mother -- is there a difference?” Shaun replies.
Director James McTeigue, who once had a home on Shelter Island, knows the power of an off-the-beaten-track location. Tucked in the woods, the house is a fortress with a souped-up security system, making it all the tougher for Shaun to get back in after thugs invade and lock her out.
Throughout, she punches, kicks, gouges eyes, hangs off staircases. (Moral: Never underestimate a mother on a mission.) “Moms don’t run,” says one of the villains. “Not when their babies are trapped in the nest.”
At a recent screening in Atlanta, the audience got vocal.
“Oh, you’re gonna see the power of God now,” one woman exclaimed, after a beaten-up Shaun gets her second wind. Other women in the audience laughed, as if in agreement, Sullivan recalls. “It’s like they were saying, ‘You think she has nothing left? Let her hear her baby cry and watch how quickly she finds the strength to get up.’ ”
THE #METOO MOMENT
A strong maternal heroine is appealing in the era of the #MeToo Movement and the women's marches. “I think the film taps into all this -- it’s what makes the movie relevant to the present moment,” says Victoria Hesford, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Stony Brook University.
What exactly is the draw?
“What we have here is an unapologetic recognition of the strength and willpower that women possess, and an acknowledgement that these qualities are not inherently masculine,” says Tara Holmes, a doctoral candidate studying film and feminism with Hesford at Stony Brook.
Add to that Union’s relatability and athleticism, fueling her character’s appeal. “When she’s running, or showing her emotional side, audiences tap into Gab at that level,” says McTeigue. “That’s why she’s such a good fit.”
For Sullivan, who came up with the film idea years before marches and #MeToo, the premiere date is fortuitous. “It’s a satisfying time to see a woman -- a mother -- triumph,” she says.
She’s still fascinated by the unspoken language moms share, no matter their race, creed or political persuasion. But she admits she didn’t get it when she was young.
“My mom would say, ‘You’ll see when you’re a mother,’” Sullivan recalls. “She was tough, a real New Yorker. I think a lot of my mom is in Gabs’ [character] in this movie.”
She chuckles, thinking back over the gutsy stunts Union executes throughout the course of the film.
“It’s a love story to my mother, I guess. Because she would do [those stunts]. I would do that. Your mother would do that. It’s just who we are.”
AVENGERS: THE MOMS EDITION
Gabrielle Union isn’t the first mom to battle bad guys. Here are some favorites -- you’ll never not make your bed again.
“Kidnap” (2017) Halle Berry breaks every speed limit and HOV-lane rule chasing the kidnappers of her young son.
“Panic Room” (2002) When thieves break in, Jodie Foster and her diabetic daughter (11-year-old Kristen Stewart) hide in a state-of-the-art panic room in their new Manhattan apartment.
“The River Wild” (1994) A river-rafting trip gets bumpy when Meryl Streep’s family runs afoul of bank robber Kevin Bacon.
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) With help from (pre-governor) Arnold Schwarzenegger, buff Linda Hamilton fends off a shape-shifting robot from the future hellbent on assassinating her son.
“Not Without My Daughter” (1991) In this tale based on a true story, Sally Field plays an American mother trapped in Iran with her Iranian husband, desperate to escape the country with her child. — JOSEPH V. AMODIO