“Sarah T.–Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic” (1975)

Nobody was put through more shit in the 70s than Linda Blair. While other young actresses got to do movies about the joys and pains of first love, or pursuing their dreams of stardom, the cherubic Blair, in a four year stretch of unrelenting misery, played an abused runawaywrongfully sent to reform school and sexually assaulted (Born Innocent), a gravely ill teenager trapped on a plane in danger of crashing (Airport 1975), a semi-illiterate farm girl kidnapped by a mentally ill man (Sweet Hostage, and if you think TV movies of today are too tawdry, it was marketed as a romantic drama), a hijacking victim (Victory at Entebbe), and a young woman tormented by her evil cousin (Summer of Fear). All that, plus starring in Exorcist II: the Heretic, which is enough suffering to endure for an entire decade on its own.

Thanks to 1975’s Sarah T.–Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, Blair became the poster child for troubled teen made for TV movies. Though not the pioneer in the genre (that would be 1973’s Go Ask Alice), it was among the first to take both neglectful parents and irresponsible advertising to task for the growing problem of teen substance abuse. The movie opens with a spot-on parody of a beer commercial, where attractive young people joyously toss brewskis around like frisbees, intercut with a somber voiceover rattling off statistics about alcoholism and high school students.

According to the statistics, one in ten teenagers will become alcoholics–and this includes Sarah Travis (Linda Blair, though you probably guessed that by now), a smart but shy and lonely fifteen year-old. Sarah yearns for love and attention from her divorced parents, but her mother, Joanne (Verna Bloom), is more interested in keeping up appearances as a wealthy housewife, while her wayward father, Richard (Larry Hagman), would prefer to be the “fun” dad, showing up only when it’s convenient for him and giving Sarah money to make up for his lousy parenting. Bored and annoyed by having to play hostess at her parents’ liquor soaked parties (and all but offered up as a piece of meat for the son of her stepfather’s boss), Sarah begins nipping from unfinished drinks to soothe herself.

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An occasional sip here and there quickly turns to Sarah hiding whole bottles of wine and liquor in her bedroom closet (and–**hurk**–drinking vodka straight). It helps ease the pain caused by her father’s broken promises, the snobby girls at her new school who aren’t impressed with the super cool denim suit and newsboy cap she wears to a party, and her overbearing mother all but forcing her at gunpoint to go out on a date with neighborhood golden boy Ken (played by a two years away from Star Wars Mark Hamill). As it does for most people, booze makes Sarah more relaxed, more sociable, more able to do things like sing a rendition of Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” eventually winning over her classmates.

She also wins over Ken, who is initially the only person in Sarah’s life even remotely concerned with how much she drinks. Meanwhile, Joanne and Sarah’s stepfather (William Daniels) seem less concerned with that than the fact that she has the audacity to be drunk where other people can see her, rather than in the privacy of her own home, like a functioning alcoholic would. Sarah desperately latches on to the kindness Ken shows her, and the two of them tentatively move towards a relationship. Scoring a top quality fella and making friends should make Sarah happy (it certainly seems to be the only accomplishments Joanne is interested in), but it only creates more pressure, and thus increases Sarah’s reliance on alcohol. She starts sotting it up at school, sneaking booze in soda cans, cutting classes, and forging her mother’s name on absentee excuses. When a guidance counselor expresses alarm at this to Joanne, her response is to icily deny that there’s a problem, and even if there was, “My husband knows how to handle it.”

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Put off by her excessive drinking, Ken distances himself from Sarah, admitting that he’s been seeing other girls and isn’t as emotionally invested in the relationship as Sarah is. A distraught Sarah, inconveniently while babysitting, drinks until she blacks out. Again, Joanne’s primary concern is how this will look to other people, and blaming anyone else but herself for Sarah’s increasingly serious problem. Even when Sarah herself admits how bad things have gotten (“I’d probably drink rubbing alcohol if I could get my hands on it”), and the two attend counseling, Joanne continues to deny that booze is the crux of the issue, stiffly describing it as a “behavioral problem.” When the therapist recommends that Sarah attend AA meetings, Joanne’s reaction is–did ya guess?–to immediately worry about how this will go over in the neighborhood gossip circles. It seems that in Joanne’s world of spotless pools and cocktail parties every weekend, having a kid who’s a mental patient is less embarrassing than having a kid who’s a drunk.

Though reluctant at first, Sarah eventually attends an AA meeting, and is struck by how many of the members are young people (including one boy who’s all of eleven years old). Perhaps not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, Sarah spikes her punch with booze right there at the meeting, while literally at the same time denying that she’s an alcoholic. Moved by the eleven year-old’s story of sobriety, however, Sarah finally decides that maybe it’s time she lay off the sauce.

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That’s not going to be easy, however, what with the insufferable jerks she’s been stuck with for parents. Rather than working together to get her the help she needs, Joanne and Richard instead argue over whose fault it is (answer: not their own, obviously) that she got into this mess in the first place. Richard talks a good game about what a better job he could have done raising Sarah, but when she calls his bluff and asks to live with him, he stammers about not being able look after her because of his itinerant lifestyle. Let down by the adults in her life yet again, Sarah goes on a drinking spree for the ages, sinking low enough to offer her body to a group of thuggish older boys in exchange for free booze. Having hit that proverbial rock bottom, she steals Ken’s beloved pet horse and takes it for a ride, causing an accident on a nearby road. Grievously injured, the horse, who might be the only character in this entire movie who can’t be blamed in some way for Sarah’s problems, has to be put out of its misery.

Because nothing will snap you out of an alcohol induced stupor like getting a horse killed, Sarah finally admits what’s right in the title of the movie–that she’s a teenage alcoholic. Though her parents’ heads remain firmly planted up their own asses till the very end (“The first thing we all have to do is forget this whole thing ever happened,” Joanne says, as if her daughter didn’t just kill a horse), Sarah finds solace and comfort with some of the kids from the AA meeting, as she begins the journey to recovery.

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Other than that rather lurid last fifteen minutes or so (Sarah, having slept all of once with Ken, suddenly jumping to having sex for cheap liquor seem a bit of a stretch, but who can say for sure), Sarah T. is relatively low key as far as anti-substance abuse propaganda goes. As opposed to the previously mentioned Go Ask Alice, whose titular character seemed to be a formless lump of clay who experimented with drugs mostly because other people told her to, Sarah makes the conscious decision on her own to turn to alcohol to mask the pain of both loneliness, and being burdened with the most awful parents imaginable. It’s hard to say which of them deserves the Golden Asshole Award for being the least helpful in Sarah’s time of need. Maybe it’s brittle, image obsessed Joanne, who acts as though marriage to some middle management schmuck makes her neighborhood royalty. Or perhaps it’s smarmy, useless Richard, who just can’t be tethered down with such trivialities as “jobs” or “responsibilities.” Or it could be her vaguely creepy stepfather, who seems to have a highball glass surgically grafted to his hand, and who says stuff like “I think I need to take some charge of discipline around here.”

In what is presumably meant to be a touch of irony, most of the adults in nearly every scene are either holding a drink, fixing a drink, or talking about drinking. In one scene, Joanne purrs at Sarah’s stepfather about how “impressed” she is with how much he can put away, and in a later scene, when she mistakenly fires the kindly housekeeper for pilfering from the family booze supply, says “My husband says the liquor’s been watered down, now you can’t fool a real Scotch drinker with that!” Her tone is hilariously haughty, as if being a “real Scotch drinker” is on the same level of rare expertise as being able to distinguish an authentic Picasso from a fraud. In this boring, wealthy suburb, drinking is not just a hobby, it’s a sign of class and sophistication. Sarah’s problem is that she simply didn’t do a good enough job of hiding it.

Original airdate: February 11, 1975

Watch it here

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