Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past! On Sundays, I will be reviewing the made-for-television movies that used to be a primetime mainstay. Today’s film is 1975’s Sarah T — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic. It can be viewed on YouTube!
In 1975, two years after shocking audiences in and receiving an Oscar nomination for The Exorcist, Linda Blair played Sarah Travis. Sarah is fourteen years old. She has a high IQ. She lives in a nice suburban home. She has an older sister named Nancy (Laurette Sprang) and she makes a good deal of money working as a babysitter. Sarah lives with her mother, Jean (Verna Bloom) and her stepfather, Matt (William Daniels). She misses her father, a chronically unemployed artist named Jerry (Larry Hagman). Jerry is the type who will complain about how no one is willing to give him a chance while he’s day drinking early in the morning. Jerry’s an alcoholic. That’s one of the many things that led to Jean divorcing him. (Matt is fairly regular drinker as well but it soon becomes apparent that he can handle his liquor in a way that Jerry cannot. Matt has a glass of Scotch after work. Jerry has his daughter by a slushy so he can pour his beer in the cup.) Jean is always quick to keep Sarah from drinking. When someone offers her a drink at a party, Jean replies that Sarah only drinks ginger ale.
Of course, the name of this movie is Sarah T. — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic so we already know that Jean is incorrect about that. When we first meet Sarah, she is fourteen and she’s been regularly drinking for two years. She’s even worked out a system where she gets liquor delivered to the house and then tells the deliveryman that her mother is in the shower but she left the money for the booze on the dining room table. Like many alcoholics, Sarah has become very good at tricking people and hiding her addiction. Of course, Sarah doesn’t think that she’s an alcoholic but …. well, again, just check out the title of the film.
When Sarah goes to a party with Ken (Mark Hamill, two years before Star Wars), the handsome captain of the school’s swim team, she ends up having too much to drink. Nice guy Ken not only takes her home but also takes the blame, telling Jean and Matt that he was the one who gave Sarah the alcohol. Jean, convinced that this is the first time that Sarah has ever gotten drunk, forbids her from spending any more time with Ken. In the morning, Jean comments that Sarah will probably have a terrible hangover and maybe that’s punishment enough. The joke, of course, is on Jean. Sarah doesn’t even get hangovers anymore.
Soon, Sarah’s grades start to slip and she starts to skip class so that she can drink. Still blaming Ken for all of Sarah’s problems, Jean finally takes Sarah to a psychologist, Dr. Kitteridge (Michael Lerner). Dr. Kitteridge announces that Sarah is an alcoholic and recommends that she start attending A.A. meetings. Sarah does go to one meeting, in which she meets a surprisingly cheerful 12 year-old alcoholic. However, Sarah still has a way to go and so does the movie. I mean, we haven’t even gotten to the scene where Sarah begs a group of older boys to give her the bottle of wine that they’re clumsily tossing in the air. By the end of the film, she’s even managed to hurt poor, loyal Ken.
Myself, I hardly ever drink. Some of that is because, like Sarah, I’m the daughter of an alcoholic and a child of divorce and I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it can be to live with an addiction. (My Dad has been sober for five years and I am so proud of him!) Of course, another reason why I hardly ever drink is because my tolerance for alcohol is amazingly low. I get drunk off one sip of beer. Long ago, I realized my life would be a lot easier and simpler if I just didn’t drink and so I don’t. Watching the film, I wondered if I was watching what my life would have been like if I had gone the opposite route. Would I have ended up like Sarah T?
Probably not. Sarah T is one of those films that was obviously made with the best of intentions but it just feels inauthentic. A lot of that is due to the performance of Linda Blair, who often seems to be overacting and trying too hard to give an “Emmy-worthy” performance. There’s not much depth to Blair’s performance and, as a result, the viewer never really buys into the story. At her worse, Blair brings to mind Jessie Spano shouting, “I’m so excited!” during that episode of Saved By The Bell. (Blair was far better served by B-movies like Savage Streets, in which she got to kick ass as a vigilante, than by films like this.) As well, the film’s portrayal of A.A. is so cheerful, upbeat, and positive that it almost felt like a Disney version of Intervention. Who are all of these happy addicts? I wondered as I watched the scene play out.
Because I’ve been a bit critical of his acting abilities in the past, I do feel the need to point out that Mark Hamill gives the best performance in this film. He plays Ken as being a genuinely decent human being and it’s hard not to sympathize with him as he gets in over his head trying to deal with Sarah. If Blair plays every emotion on the surface, Hamill suggests that there’s a lot going on with Ken. Deep down, he knows that he can’t help Sarah but he still feels like he has to try. Though Blair may be the star of the film, it’s Hamill who makes the biggest impression.
As a final note, this film was directed by Richard Donner, who is best-known for directing The Omen, Superman and Lethal Weapon. This was Donner’s final made-for-TV film before he moved into features. There’s nothing particularly special about Donner’s direction of Sarah T. If anything, the film’s pacing feels a bit off. Fortunately, just as Linda Blair would get to prove herself as one of the queens of exploitation cinema and Mark Hamill would go on to achieve immortality as Luke Skywalker, Donner would get plenty of opportunities to show himself to be one of Hollywood’s premier, big budget maestros.
As for Sarah T., I would recommend watching it on a double bill with Go Ask Alice.