Patricia Arquette continues her chameleon-like acting renaissance in “The Act,” a creepy new Hulu series based on the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard (Arquette) orchestrated by her daughter, Gypsy Rose (Joey King), whom she’d physically and emotionally abused for years.
There are parallels in “The Act” to last summer’s nightmarish HBO series “Sharp Objects,” which dealt with a mother’s (Patricia Clarkson) pathological sickness known as Munchausen by proxy syndrome (MSbP), in which a person foists a variety of feigned illnesses on others in order to draw attention to themselves.
But “Sharp Objects” was fiction; “The Act” is based on the true story of Blanchard’s MSbP (she was murdered at the age of 48 in 2015), which makes it all-the-more horrifying — as do the lengths to which her illness consumed Gypsy Rose like a cancer and led to a homicidal conclusion.
“The Act” opens in 2015 but quickly flashes back seven years, when Dee Dee and tween-aged Gypsy, who’s in a wheelchair, arrive in a small Missouri town to move into the pink house built for them by Habitat for Humanity, ostensibly after they lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Their feelgood story is featured on the local news and Dee Dee is, understandably, overprotective of Gypsy — who she claims is a paraplegic suffering from epilepsy, a deadly sugar allergy and a heart murmur and has had her salivary glands removed “because she was choking herself.” Dee Dee feeds her daughter blender-processed “food” through an intravenous port in her stomach, shaves Gypsy’s head nearly every day and home-schools her daughter.
Their behavior doesn’t set off too many alarms, initially — everyone feels sorry for them in equal measure — but their new neighbor, single-mom Mel (Chloe Sevigny), grows suspicious after witnessing Dee Dee shoplifting a necklace for Gypsy from the local mall. A hospital doctor (Poorna Jagannathan) also suspects something amiss after treating Gypsy for a dental emergency (she’s been secretly eating sugar — lots of it) and notices some odd behavior between mother and daughter. She starts digging into the young girl’s medical records which, her mother claims, were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina.
Gypsy also strikes up a sisterly friendship with Mel’s high-school-age daughter, Lacey (AnnaSophia Robb) and her boyfriend, which will lead her down a dark path as more secrets are uncovered, more of Dee Dee’s pathology is exposed and Gypsy’s life takes a turn as she turns her rage onto her mother.
“The Act” is not for the faint-of-heart; it’s not overly graphic (there are a few “look away” moments not for the squeamish) but it resonates so strongly due to its nightmarish, psychologically malignant subject matter and terrific performances from all involved — particularly Arquette, who won a slew of awards, including a Golden Globe, for last fall’s “Escape from Dannemora” and King, 19, who starred in last summer’s popular Netflix romcom “The Kissing Booth.” Their scenes together (there are lots of them) are simultaneously intense and creepy beyond belief.
Kudos, too, to Sevigny, who shines here as a strong-willed woman dealing with her own troubles and turns turns her intuitive, keen sensibilities on to Dee Dee and Gypsy when she senses something amiss.