A strong central performance and a clear sense of authorship elevate this Lifetime Original Movie into more than the sum of its parts.
On June 23, 1993, Lorena Gallo Bobbitt became a national punchline when, after years of abuse and sexual assault, she cut off her husband John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis while he was sleeping. John Bobbitt had his penis surgically reattached and subsequently became a sort of pop culture icon, making the talk show circuit and appearing in adult films, while Lorena was painted as a shrew and a jealous psycho.
Over the last few years, there has been a cultural shift to the public’s perception of the story. Interviews with Gallo (Lorena now goes by her maiden name) in Vanity Fair and The New York Times and a 2019 Amazon documentary series presented a side of the story that, while not unknown, had been overlooked in lieu of late-night show monologues. What’s more, the overall effects of the #MeToo movement forced a closer look back at the events.
I Was Lorena Bobbitt, Lifetime’s latest ‘Ripped from the Headlines’ feature, is almost more of a full-length reenactment than it is a film. Gallo (who also executive produced) narrates and appears as a talking head, lending what could be just another made-for-TV true story a level of poignant realism.
Written by Barbara Nance and directed by Danishka Esterhazy, I Was Lorena Bobbitt begins in media res, with Lorena (Dani Montalvo) fleeing her home following “The Incident”. The story jumps around said Incident, beginning with Lorena and John’s (Luke Humphrey) first meeting, to their marriage, to Lorena’s interrogation following The Incident, to the gaslighting and abuse that became more and more frequent.
Montalvo does an excellent job portraying Lorena from a wide-eyed newlywed to a tired survivor, to a woman trying to defend herself, but Humphrey as John is a sort of looming one-note monster, a man so slimy and manipulative from the jump that it’s hard to see the man with whom Lorena would’ve fallen in love. Lorena insists to her friends that he’s sweet and romantic, but like them, we aren’t seeing it. The relationship itself is shown mostly in the sum of its worst parts, which makes for a harrowing watch. This is not a movie to go into sans content warnings: mental and physical abuse and rape are shown fairly graphically.
The other characters rather fade into a collection of TV-movie staples: the caring boss, the worried friend, the harried lawyer. A recurring point that Gallo makes is the lack of an official support system for domestic violence victims at that time; a police officer escorts her from the apartment one night after John hits her, but he just walks her out and leaves, not making any further inquiries or arrests.
This is not a movie to go into sans content warnings: mental and physical abuse and rape are shown fairly graphically.
But Gallo also notes the issues within her personal circles as well: when her mother witnesses a particularly bad scene during a visit, she repeatedly asks why Lorena has made John so angry. Gallo has always maintained, as does the film, that she did not actively plan to injure John but was pushed past her limits by his abuse, and this movie succeeds at showing how a person could be driven to those lengths.
I Was Lorena Bobbitt can feel a bit one-sided, as noted earlier regarding Humphrey’s portrayal of John, but that is always going to be a factor in any movie telling one person’s story.
The label of “Lifetime Movie” still has its share of negative connotations, but I Was Lorena Bobbitt is a strong movie that doesn’t hesitate to show the ugly aspects of Lorena’s life while still showcasing the survivor and advocate she has become. This film tells Lorena Gallo’s story, not the one splashed across the tabloids and comedy sketches of 27 years ago. It’s her story, respectfully, at last.