“Not My Kid” (1985)

You know you had a mediocre public school education when the “health teacher” did double duty teaching another class. In my school, it was usually either a gym teacher or a football coach, and all you had to do to pass was show up. Despite the rise of HIV and ever increasing teenage pregnancy rates, virtually all of what we learned in health class was related to the dangers of alcohol and drug use, and most of that we learned by watching made for TV movies, while the teacher sat with his feet up on the desk reading about how the Eagles were doing that week.

A popular one with my health teacher was 1985’s Not My Kid. We watched it in seventh grade. We watched it in eighth grade. By ninth grade, we could all but quote along from it, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m not sure why my teacher liked it so much, when there existed far more grisly cautionary tales such as Stoned, in which a pot addled Scott Baio nearly kills his brother with a rowboat paddle, and Desperate Lives, in which an angel dusted Helen Hunt throws herself out a window. I can only assume that as an aged, bitter teacher, he enjoyed its frequent scenes of high school students reduced to blithering, tearful wrecks by adults who know better.

The movie opens with a bunch of teenagers joyriding while hopped up on the booze and the drugs, intercut with scenes of kids, even one as young as 12, talking about their crippling addictions. The teens flip their car, thankfully escaping with their lives. One of them, 15 year-old Susan Bower (Viveka Davis), is retrieved from the hospital by her indulgent parents, Frank (George Segal) and Helen (Stockard Channing). Even though a doctor tells Frank (a doctor himself) that Susan and her friends were more fried than an egg on speed when the car accident happened, he and Helen seem relatively unconcerned.

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Susan herself pleads ignorance to knowing that she was taking speed, and denies ever having done it before, or any other drugs for that matter, telling Frank “At school this girl gave me a couple tokes on a marijuana once.” Frank, in what we’ll be told several times is the real problem with parents today, decides against punishing her, even though she might as well have I’M LYING written on her forehead in Sharpie. A tiny bit of doubt nags at Frank, however, and he decides to search Susan’s bedroom. Helen, who apparently really does believe that Susan only had a couple tokes on a marijuana once, argues with him about it, forcing Susan’s younger sister, Kelly (Christa Denton), to reveal to them where Susan hides her impressive stash, which includes Quaaludes, crystal meth, and heroin.

Helen, who presumably has a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge somewhere in her possession, believes the old “I was holding it for a friend” story. Kelly is rewarded for her concern by Susan pounding the crap out of her. Finally accepting that there might be a problem, first Frank and Helen blame Susan’s school, and then they blame each other. In one hilarious scene, a smarmy psychiatrist claims that heroin addiction is an “accessible rebellion,” and that the best treatment is for Susan to be allowed to do whatever she wants. Frank speaks for the audience when he responds to the psychiatrist’s suggestion that he “loosen the reins” with gape-mouthed disbelief.

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Before they get a chance to see if indulging her even more does the trick, Susan runs away from home, hiding out in Frank’s boat. All out of options, Frank and Helen reluctantly send Susan to in-patient rehab, run by Dr. Royce (Andrew Robinson), the no nonsense, straight talking, sits backwards in a chair kinda drug counselor. The young residents (one of whom is played by voice of Bart Simpson and noted Scientologist Nancy Cartwright) introduce themselves to Susan with “We’re druggies too.”

The rehab center is run like a sort of genial prison, where new residents are literally led around by the forearm by older, more seasoned kids. They’re forced to reveal every last gruesome detail of their addiction in front of an audience of both peers and parents, much to Helen’s horror, who doesn’t want her precious daughter to rub elbows with the kind of rabble who has to turn tricks for drugs, rather than just stealing money from their parents, like decent people. Susan herself is all attitude and snobbery at first, but the aggressive badgering of her peers to be honest and accept how serious her addictions are eventually wears her down. She admits in front of her parents that not only has she been using drugs for years, but that she committed burglary to buy more drugs, and secretly had an abortion.

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Just when you think that rather punishing confession might be the sign of a breakthrough on Susan’s part, she runs away from rehab, only to be sold out by her sleazy, Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt wearing boyfriend in exchange for prescription grade morphine. Susan evidently finds living under a boardwalk preferable to rehab, but Frank sends her back anyway. It finally seems to stick, however, and Susan is on her way to recovery, even getting a slow motion, triumphant run into her father’s arms at the end, which is certainly better than the bleak, cynical ending the titular heroine of Go Ask Alice got.

If you like seeing teenagers cry, then you’ll love Not My Kid. Much of the second half of the movie consists of young people weeping, as smug adults push and prod them into admitting their deepest, most painful secrets, all in an effort to “cure” them of drug addiction. As serious as the subject matter is, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the scene in The Goonies when Chunk, threatened by the Fratellis into telling them everything he knows about the treasure map, ends up confessing to every naughty thing he’s done from fourth grade on up, including cheating on a history test and gorging himself on nuts at fat camp. While Viveka Davis gives a heck of a performance, it seems a bit sadistic for this troubled young girl to have to confess in front of her parents and a roomful of strangers an ever more shocking litany of sins, as part of her “recovery.”

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While there’s a lot of groveling for forgiveness, and a lot of parents talking about how if they had just been more strict with their kids none of this would have happened, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of exploring as to what drove the kids to start using drugs in the first place. The closest we get is Susan saying that she wanted boys to like her, which seems a dubious excuse for getting into heroin (“I never shot up!” Susan insists, before correcting herself with “Once…a couple times.”). Like a lot of anti-drug propaganda, exactly no minutes are dedicated to the fact that happy people don’t regularly numb themselves with drugs and alcohol. Presumably because it was written by middle-aged people who don’t think people under 18 have anything to be unhappy about, the movie suggests that addiction is the folly of spoiled, bored teens, and should be treated with a healthy dose of shaming and finger waving. The branches of the problem (the parts everyone can see) are cut off, while the root continues to be ignored.

Original airdate: January 15, 1985

Watch it here

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