After starring in perhaps the most controversial theatrical feature of 1973, The Exorcist, perhaps it was fitting for 14-year-old Linda Blair to appear in one of the most controversial small-screen features of 1974. Part of a lurid series of girls-gone-bad telefilms, the relentlessly grim Born Innocent tracks the downward spiral of Christine Parker (Blair), who runs away from her abusive home so many times that her parents surrender custody of Christine to the government. Thus, Christine lands in a juvenile detention center for girls, where fellow inmates subject her to an incident of soul-crushing abuse. Then, despite the valiant efforts of a counselor named Barbara Clark (Joanna Miles), Christine dangles on the precipice of complete disengagement from emotions and morality. The drama of the piece stems from the question of whether Barbara will be able to help Christine save herself, complicated by the secondary question of how much degradation and disappointment one human being can withstand before hiding behind a shell of contempt and cynicism.
This is heavy stuff, and even though there’s an innately salacious element to Born Innocent—ads hyped that Blair would appear in explicit scenes—the movie is kept on track, narratively speaking, by Gerald Di Pego’s sensitive teleplay. Di Pego, an occasional novelist who has subsequently accrued an impressive string of big-screen writing credits, employs minimalism to great effect throughout Born Innocent. For instance, only one scene between Christine and her parents (played by Kim Hunter and Richard Jaeckel) is needed to communicate why Christine felt the need to escape her household. Working from a book by Creighton Brown Burnham, Di Pego and director Donald Wrye create a tense mood that compensates for the unavoidably episodic nature of the storyline.
In fact, it’s to the filmmakers’ great credit that Born Innocent works quite well despite a leading performance that’s mediocre at best. Skilled as she was at mimicking intense emotions during her younger years, Blair can’t come close to matching the power that, say, Jodie Foster could have generated in the same material. In any event, the lasting notoriety of Born Innocent stems largely from a single scene—the lengthy and shocking sequence during which Christine’s fellow “inmates” rape her with the handle of a plunger. Although nothing truly graphic is shown, the scene is startlingly forthright considering the context, and it casts such a dark shadow over the rest of the story that everything afterward seethes with subtext. Because of the intensity of that single scene, and because of the delicacy of the film’s character work, Born Innocent may be the best example of its sordid genre, as well as the most haunting.
Born Innocent: GROOVY