If you’ve been following my writing here long enough, then you’ll know that I often enjoy mocking people my age who wax poetic, to an absurd degree, about their childhoods, insisting that they were far better than the selfie and participation trophy laden childhoods of the present. Why, we drank filthy creek water and bought cigarettes for our parents, and it was great! Who needed the internet when you had a stack of ten year-old National Geographics in the back of the library?
It’s a little hard to maintain the illusion of goodness and purity of Gen X childhoods when you consider teensploitation. Teensploitation is exactly what it sounds like, a thankfully brief film genre of the late 70s-early 80s in which young people, usually girls, found themselves in dangerously adult situations. Sometimes they were runaways, sometimes they were prostitutes, sometimes they were runaway prostitutes. Sometimes they found themselves in prison, or stalked by a murderer. Whatever it was, two things always held true: the girls were always very innocent, and always wore very skimpy clothing, acting as both a cautionary tale for young female viewers, and wank fodder for male viewers of all ages.
Though Linda Blair in Born Innocent is probably the best remembered example of the genre, Eve Plumb had a good run at it too, with 1976’s Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway. Dawn was such a hit that it got a sequel just a year later, Alexander: the Other Side of Dawn, focusing on her kind-hearted boyfriend.
Alexander picks up almost immediately where Dawn leaves off, with Alex (Leigh McCloskey) badly injured by Dawn’s pimp. While he’s hospitalized, we get a little bit of Alex’s background story. An impossibly handsome Oklahoma farm boy, who somehow lacks the hayseed accent his parents have, he’s kicked out of his house by his father, largely because “you like drawing them pictures.” He takes off to Los Angeles intending to attend art school, but delicate flower of innocence Alex isn’t off the bus more than thirty seconds before he falls under the wing of street smart Buddy (Asher Brauner), a B-grade Tony Manero who drops broad hints about how he supports himself (hint: it involves middle-aged men furtively entering and exiting his apartment at all hours of the day, and they’re not selling Amway products).
Alexander can’t find a job because he’s underage (and apparently doesn’t even consider lying about it), and soon he’s turning tricks too, which is how he meets his beloved Dawn. Recovering from his injuries, Alexander wants to marry Dawn, but only if she stops hooking. To ensure this, he sends her home to Arizona and stays behind in L.A., determined to make enough money for the two of them to have a life together. Despite his good intentions, a (slightly) older and (slightly) tougher Alex still can’t find steady work, and almost immediately returns to prostitution.
His very first trick upon his return ends up being a sting operation, and he’s arrested. Just after he’s taunted by threats of holding cell rape by a guy wearing a leather vest and no shirt, he’s sprung out of jail by Ray Church (Earl Holliman, or rather EARRRRRRL HOLLIMAN, if you’re an MST3K fan), who runs a community center for gay teens. Despite Alex’s insistence that gay is “not my trip, man,” he eventually agrees to attend a group therapy session (where one of the members includes a young Jonathan Banks in a jaunty newsboy cap). Though clearly moved by stories of the other group members’ estrangement from their fathers (it’s strongly hinted that Alex’s salt of the earth pappy senses something in his “artistic” nature that Alex himself is not yet ready to accept), he lashes out at them in defensive anger and flees the center.
Alex briefly returns to Buddy’s pad, but, appalled by Buddy’s completely rational suggestion that he become a kept boy for rich older women, he soon finds himself fully on his own, even resorting to sleeping under playground equipment, with only thoughts of Dawn (who’s equally miserable back home) to comfort him. Things start looking up, however, when Alex meets Chuck (Alan Feinstein), a professional football player, and one of the few adults Alex encounters who doesn’t either sneer at him in disgust, or eye him like a Chicago deep dish with extra cheese.
He moves in with Chuck as his paid companion, telling Dawn that he’s working as an assistant/cook for Chuck “and his girlfriend.” Alex seems uneasy initially (though, to be fair, he seems uneasy all the time), but eventually settles into the comfortable, laid back California lifestyle that comes with being Chuck’s helpmeet and arm candy (and occasionally other things, though of course, it being a TV movie in 1977, this is only barely hinted at). Alas, the good life only lasts so long before Chuck starts moving on to another sunkissed young buck from the streets.
Alex, who just has the shittiest luck, is followed to Chuck’s house by the cops after buying drugs. Facing three months in jail, he’s given a break by a judge, who lets him go but orders him to leave town immediately, like Butch in Pulp Fiction. In an amazing display of timing, while on a bus to join Dawn in Arizona, Alex passes by her on the street. Having had an unpleasant encounter back home with a former customer, Dawn has returned to the city. Reunited, the young couple decides they’ll start anew in a different city altogether. They’re all smiles as they enter the bus station, unaware that their relationship is doomed to fail, not just because they’re so young, not just because they don’t have $20 between them, but because Alex is clearly homosexual.
Given the plot, Alexander: the Other Side of Dawn rates surprisingly low on the lurid scale. The openly gay characters aren’t all portrayed as broad, mincing stereotypes, and even a trip to a gay nightclub is a relatively understated occasion, with only a few shirtless male bodies gyrating on the dance floor. While it does send a dismaying message that once you resort to selling your body, even when you try to return to a normal life you’ll never escape the taint of it, it also does a fairly good job of illustrating the emotional rollercoaster of a young person struggling to understand their sexuality. It’s interesting to note that Alex never explicitly denies that he’s gay, only that he doesn’t need support for it. His relationship with Dawn seems based less in romantic love than in the fact that they’re all each other has. Realizing that that’s not the recipe for a long and happy relationship puts a bittersweet twist on a pat, implausibly happy ending. We kind of want to see things work out for these crazy kids, since they’ve had such a tough time, but we know it won’t, and that’s a bummer.
Original airdate: May 16, 1977
Watch it here (in several parts)