Home Video Hovel: Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, by Alex Daniel
The concept of the “After School Special” is so ubiquitous, most people have an idea of what an After School Special movie is like without ever really watching one. These deadly serious, hour-long cautionary tales centered on a controversial topic, aiming to scare teenagers straight from having sex, bullying their peers, experimenting with drugs, or playing hooky. The intentions may have been pure but when you have an hour of television called “The Day My Kid Went Punk,” it can be hard to take seriously today. Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic is not formally an After School Special but it’s noteworthy on its pedigree alone: Directed by a pre-The Omen Richard Donner, starring a post-The Exorcist Linda Blair and a pre-Skywalker Mark Hamill and scripted by the co-creators of Dynasty. The combined talent–both in front of and behind the camera–make for a mostly effective melodrama.
Sarah T.’s premise is so familiar, modern audiences will more or less be able to guess its upcoming plot points several minutes before they occur. Sarah (Blair) is a young, not-so-hip high school freshman from the suburbs. Her mom and step-dad drink socially and, every now and again, Sarah will sneak a few sips of their drinks. When she meets a handsome jock (Hamill, whose character also owns a horse for some reason), she drinks even more to impress him and his friends at a party. Before you know it, Sarah is stashing away full bottles of vodka to make it through the week. And yes, you can see where this is going: A meeting at Alcoholics Anonymous, a meeting with a psychiatrist, and a devastating rock bottom are all in order before the movie is over.
A great deal has changed about our understanding of alcoholism since Sarah T.’s release in 1975. When it aired, the idea of a teenager, of all people, being an alcoholic was unfathomable. To the script’s credit, Sarah’s experiences with alcohol will ring true to those who have had experienced it first or second-hand; her actions are not depraved, violent, or disgusting. The film doesn’t sensationalize the experience, like, say, Leaving Las Vegas, Flight, The Spectacular Now, or Country Strong, all of which deal with similar subject matter. That kind of script doesn’t make Sarah T. a subtle film but it does provide Donner enough space to whip it into a fast-paced, interesting story despite its predictable plot. And Blair, who shot to stardom by projectile vomiting on a priest in The Exorcist, is relatively reserved, letting her small behavioral changes speak all the louder throughout the film. Hamill, however, nearly steals every scene that he’s in; it is easy to see what George Lucas saw in him based on this footage as a mostly innocent, sensitive young dude.
Included in Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray are two special features: An interview with Blair and a conversation with Donner and producer David Levinson, both of which were created for this release. Blair’s interview is interesting, as she reflects on how she ended up in the role of Sarah, but the Donner/Levinson chat really steals the show. Both men are in the twilight of their careers (Donner’s last directed film was 16 Blocks; you know, the one with Bruce Willis and Mos Def from over a decade ago) and they speak candidly about their experiences working on Sarah T. Let me tell you: the twenty-minute conversation is a blast. Donner, more than 40 years removed from the experience, still seems humorously aghast at the original script ending with Sarah’s death.
Even though a great deal of talent went into the production of Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, it can’t quite escape its dated circumstances (a 4:3 standard aspect ratio, flat lighting, mediocre sound, et cetera). Its message, however, still feels relevant, in part because the film was made in coordination with a local Los Angeles chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Where most After School Specials seemed designed to spook parents and kids alike, the involvement of AA makes Sarah T. feel more like a television special made for those that need help but don’t quite realize it or can’t admit it.