Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1975)

4. Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic

We’re almost at the point where Richard Donner became a truly successful filmmaker, making movies that were blockbusters and enduring pop culture classics. Before we get there, though, we have one more oddball flick from Donner’s early days as a television director. “Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic” premiered on NBC on February 11, 1975. The film was a ratings success and would re-air many times over the years. Eventually, it acquired a cult following. Many fans of the film saw it when it first aired. Others saw it years later and consider the TV movie a campy classic. Does the truth lie somewhere in-between?

Sarah Travis is fifteen years old. Like most teenagers, she feels alienated and lonely. She’s picked on at school and has few friends. She feels like her mother and her new stepfather don’t understand her. Her older sister, who is married and recently give birth to a baby, seems like the favored child. Her birth father travels for work and she rarely sees him. Unlike most teenagers, Sarah resolves these daily struggles by drinking alcohol. Often. Sarah doesn’t want to admit it but she’s loosing control of her desire to drink. Soon, the need for booze is controlling her. It’s a secret she can’t keep from mom and dad forever.

“Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic” is the ultimate after school special, in intent, if not literally. The film actually aired in prime time, instead of after school. It’s also not a part of the official After School Special program, which aired on a rival network. Despite this, “Sarah T.” fits in neatly with a series of TV movies in the seventies targeted at teenagers and dealing with thorny, real world subjects. (It’s not the only one Linda Blair would star in either, as she also headlined the same year’s far more controversial “Born Innocent.”) Like those other films, “Sarah T.” is meant to educate more then entertain, hoping to prompt discussion between parents and children about uncomfortable subjects.

I’m not an alcoholic. I drink very rarely, truthfully. However, as a teenager, I was friend with several kids who imbibed frequently. I can recall at least two incidents where such people sneaked alcohol into school so they could drink throughout the day. Some of these incidents can probably be blamed on teenage shenanigans but I always wondered if these kids had bigger problems. “Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic” seems to paint a fairly accurate if simplified picture of teenage alcoholism. Sarah drinks when she’s alone, more often then not. It’s rare that she gets sloppily drunk. Instead, she usually drinks to get through the day, to dull the pains of daily life. The film definitely dramatizes the alcoholic’s struggle, with a clearly defined point of clarity. Cliched lines like “I can quit whenever I want” are trotted out. Despite these contrivances, the makers of the film clearly did some research.

It’s a nasty coincidence that Linda Blair’s post-“Exorcist” career would be dominated by stories of fallen teens, considering she would have drug problems of her own before the end of the seventies. Blair’s subsequent film career would be uneven and her talents as an actress were rarely well utilized. In “Sarah T.,” Blair does all right. Still carrying the squeaky voice and chubby chipmunk cheeks that characterized pre-possession Regan McNeil, Blair clearly defines Sarah’s soon-to-be-lost innocence. However, Blair’s biggest flaw as an actress – her inability to convince audiences of personal loss and tragedy – soon shines through. When playing a normal teen, Blair does a good job. When the film calls on her to perform bigger acting, the seams start to show.

For a TV movie, “Sarah T.” has a cast full of recognizable names. For one example, M. Emmet Walsh has a small role as a friend of Sarah’s parents. Meanwhile, Sarah’s love interest is played by a young Mark Hamill. Hamill co-stars as Ken, who is set up on a blind date with Sarah by her parents. Despite being older and cooler then her, Ken and Sarah quickly develop a relationship. Hamil has decent chemistry with Blair. His boy next door charm is well suited to the role, as he’s essentially playing a nice, normal kid. He seems to genuinely care for Sarah, which is especially evident as her drinking becomes more of a problem. Ken is also a budding equestrian, with a beloved pet horse. When that horse dies near the film’s end, Hamil gets a chance to show off his excellent crying skills. Even with the script getting silly at times, Hamil is definitely one of the highlights of “Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic.”

“Sarah T.” probably gets most overheated when it focuses on Sarah’s relationship with her parents. Her mom, played by Verna Bloom, is completely clueless about her daughter’s addiction. So clueless, that she fires the black maid after assuming the missing liquor is her fault. (That moment is either more or less racist now, depending on how you look at it.) Playing Sarah’s dad is a pre-J.R. Larry Hagman. Sarah loves her dad dearly but he’s distant. When mom and dad are united, they begin fighting immediately. In an especially heavy-handed moment, neither wants to admit their child has a problem. William Daniels, who is either better known as Mr. Feeny or K.I.T.T. depending on your age, plays Sarah’s stepdad. Unlike the denialist mother, the stepdad is an ineffectual voice of authority. His attempts to parent Sarah go ignored. Later, he becomes an icy, indifference presence. Hagman and Daniels are both fine in their roles while Bloom gives one of the film’s more melodramatic performances.

“Sarah T.” becomes most interesting not when it’s focusing on the details of her addiction but on the prospect of her rehabilitation. Entering the film towards the end is Michael Lerner as a child psychologist and addiction expert. Lerner’s character confronts Sarah directly about her problem, seeking to examine why she drinks and cure her need. Lerner provides a voice of reason in the film and a driving force to the narrative. The film comes closest to being powerful when Lerner forces Blair to tell her parents what she needs from them. Though an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting puts in an appearance, “Sarah T.” should be commended for emphasizing the strengths of one on one counseling over the debatable merits of A.A. Lerner is excellent, by the way, bringing his typical level of bluster to the part.

“Sarah T.” is defiantly earnest throughout its entire run time. This is probably why the movie has developed a reputation as an item of campy fascination. The stodgy, TV-movie quality keeps the laugh from coming constantly. Having said that, “Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic” certainly features some overcooked melodrama. Such as when Sarah’s parents slowly lower their whiskey tumblers, realizing the subconscious role they played in their child’s alcoholism. Or the blunt ending, where Sarah admits she is an alcoholic and the film ends suddenly. Yet the goofiest moment in the film involves the girl’s drunken ride on Ken’s horse. It’s an odd set-up to begin with and the conclusion, where the horse runs into traffic and is struck by a car, is hilariously awkward in execution. If you’re looking for campy chuckles, “Sarah T.” doesn’t provide them consistently enough to amuse.

As a Richard Donner movie, “Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic” doesn’t feature the giddy, stylistic highs of “Twinky.” Though the camera movement is fluid, the filmic presentation is a fairly standard affair. Donner’s best move is the opening sequence, which cuts between a happy-go-lucky beer commercial and cold, disheartening statistics about teenage alcoholism. The film was such a standard job for Donner that he doesn’t even remember its title. When asked about the film years later, he confused “Sarah T.” with an entirely different TV movie about troubled teens, “Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway,” that he had nothing to do with. Despite being one of the most popular TV movies concerning this subject, “Sarah T.” has never gotten a DVD release, forcing fans and completest such as myself to watch scratchy, faded, recorded-off-television internet rips. I can see why some remember the movie so well, even if I wouldn’t exactly call it good. [Grade: C+]

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