Saturday, May 11, 2024

#2,955. Desperate Lives (1982) - 1980s Made for Television


Originally broadcast on American network CBS in March of 1982, Desperate Lives is the kind of “morality movie” that could easily take things a bit too far. It could over-dramatize, deliver its message with a heavy hand, and feature scenes so exaggerated that it’s good intentions would be lost in the process.

I’m not gonna lie… there are moments in this film that do just that. But there’s also enough here to ensure its anti-drug agenda doesn’t get completely lost in the histrionics.

It’s the first day of school, and Eileen Phillips (Diana Scarwid), the new counselor, meets Freshman Scott Cameron (Doug McKean) in the parking lot. Just by looking at him, Eileen can tell Scott is high, and brings him into her office for a chat, hoping to steer him away from drugs.

Scott’s older sister, Sandy (Helen Hunt), who has experimented with drugs herself , also tries to help Scott. But peer pressure as well as his turbulent relationship with his parents (Diane Ladd and Tom Atkins) send Scott deeper into his downward spiral.

He befriends the local dealer, Ken (Sam Bottoms), and even starts selling drugs for him, all the while using harder and harder stuff himself. Try as she might, Eileen can’t convince her fellow teachers or the administrator, Dr. Jarvis (William Windom), to get involved. Nor can she reach Scott, who may already be a lost cause.

First and foremost, Desperate lives is a very “80s” movie, from The opening theme, written and performed by Rock Springfield, to the obligatory montages scattered throughout (in one, Eileen and her boyfriend Stab, played by Art Hindle, take Scott on an afternoon biking trip, hoping to show him there’s more to life than getting high). As for its anti-drug message, the movie is rarely subtle. The students proclaim that “everyone is doing it” while the teachers and faculty turn a blind eye for the same reason, feeling overwhelmed by it all. And, in what is undoubtedly the film’s most over-the-top moment, Helen Hunt’s Sandy is convinced by her boyfriend Steve (Grant Cramer) to try some homemade PCP he just cooked up in the school lab, and has such a “bad trip” that she leaps out of a second-story window!

There are plenty of cliches throughout, from the parents saying “Not my kid” to the character of Julie (Michele Greene), a friend of Sandy’s who trades sex for drugs with Ken and almost drowns during swim practice because she is so high.

Desperate Lives, however, proves to be a bit more than the Reefer Madness of the ‘80s (as it’s been called). For one, unlike a few reviewers, I thought Doug McKean gives a solid performance as Scott. The first exchange between him and Scarwid’s Eileen is handled well by both. In addition, Sam Bottoms plays the drug dealer Ken as just smooth enough to lure kids in (the scene where he convinces Scott to deal drugs for him features some of the movie’s most impressive dialogue), and just sleazy enough that we want to see him taken down. Helen Hunt, despite her “stunt work”, is also likable as the sister trying to help, and her scenes with McKean’s Scott resonate.

As for the ending, well… it’s even more over-the-top than anything that came before it, and seen through modern eyes, it may have viewers laughing out loud. But hey, I got a little choked up as well.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

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