Saturday, April 13, 2024

#2,954. Sarah T. - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (1975) - The Films of Richard Donner


This made-for-TV movie hits pretty hard, shining a light on an issue most weren’t aware of in 1975: teenage alcoholism. Even director Richard Donner initially turned the project down because he didn’t believe it was a real problem (producer David Levinson took him to a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and, after hearing the testimony of a pre-teen alcoholic, Donner immediately signed on).

In the opening moments of Sarah T. - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, voice-over narration provided by Michael Lerner (who also has a key role in the movie) plays over black and white photos of high school kids. Lerner informs us that, by 1975, America had approximately half a million preteen and teenage alcoholics.

But that’s just a number. What Sarah T. Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic does - and does very well - is bring the issue to the forefront, and in a manner that’s positively grueling.

Sarah Travis (Linda Blair) is not a happy kid. Her dad (Larry Hagman) is out of the picture, and Sarah’s mother (Verna Bloom) is remarried to a successful executive (William Daniels). What’s more, Sarah now lives with her mom and stepdad, which means she’s starting over in a new school.

One night, at a party thrown by her parents, Sarah steals a guest’s drink and quickly downs it in the kitchen. This kicks off what would prove to be a long and perilous addiction for Sarah, who even uses booze to help her fit in at school.

Her new boyfriend, Ken (Mark Hamill, two years before Star Wars made him a household name), is concerned about Sarah’s drinking, and worries she is taking it too far. But Sarah can’t stop. She sneaks liquor from her parents whenever she can, and, on occasion, steals it right off the shelves of liquor stores.

Concerned for her daughter but a little more worried about her social standing in their new neighborhood, Sarah’s mom reluctantly agrees to take Sarah to psychologist Dr. Marvin Kittredge (Michael Lerner). At that first session, Dr. Kittredge tells mother and daughter that the only way he can help Sarah is if she admits, then and there, that she is an alcoholic. But Sarah doesn’t believe she is, insisting she can stop drinking anytime she wants.

Sarah still has a little more to learn - and a lot further to fall - before she will realize just how serious her problem has become.

Always a strong director of children (The Omen, The Goonies), Richard Donner coaxes a brilliant performance from Linda Blair, who is just as good playing Sarah the insecure teen as she is portraying Sarah the teenage alcoholic. Her scenes with Mark Hamill have a sweetness to them, and watching their relationship grow brings something special to an otherwise hard-hitting story.

On the flipside are the scenes in which Sarah is drinking. And she drinks a lot! At parties… in her room… even standing in front of her locker at school.

We know what it is that drives Sarah to drink. Her mother is all about not embarrassing the family in their neighbor’s eyes, and dotes more on her older married daughter (Laurette Spang) than she does Sarah. As for Sarah’s dad, in the one scene in which they are together, we notice right away he is also addicted to alcohol (he downs several beers while the two are walking down the street).

But over the course of the movie, Sarah will make dear old dad look like a teetotaller.

Sarah hits lows that, frankly, for a TV movie in the ‘70s, surprised the hell out of me. There is a brilliant scene at an AA meeting (which Sarah walks out of after hearing an 11-year-old admit he is an alcoholic), but it’s the final 10-15 minutes of Sarah T. Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic that will shock you.

Written by husband / wife team Richard and Esther Shapiro, Sarah T. Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic is a movie with a message, and it delivers that message with a crippling right hook.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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