Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway (1976)

          The little-girl-lost genre had a couple of banner years in 1979 and 1980, with sensational news stories about teen runaways inspiring numerous theatrical and made-for-TV features about young girls falling victim to psychos and sleazebags. Hence this telefilm starring Eve Plumb, famous for The Brady Bunch (1969–1974), as a sweet young thing who flees the heartland, hits trouble in Los Angeles, and becomes a hooker. Plus, as if the notion of virginal Jan Brady walking the streets wasn’t sufficiently distasteful, her character’s first john is played by William Schallert, the kindly dad from The Patty Duke Show (1963–1966). Is nothing sacred? The funny thing is that despite its salacious premise, Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway is moralistic and uptight—so many characters urge the protagonist to rejoin conventional society that the picture feels like a stern PSA. This schoolmarm quality drains the movie of its potential vitality, resulting in flat and predictable storytelling. What’s more, Plumb is unconvincing when her character becomes a tough city girl, though she conveys wholesomeness well.
          The parade of clichés begins with Dawn (Plumb) taking a bus from her hometown because her single mom is too irresponsible to provide a proper home. The second Dawn sets foot in Hollywood, she's assaulted and robbed. On the bright side, sort of, she befriends a tough black hooker, Frankie Lee (Marguerite DeLain). Later, Dawn meets sensitive street boy Alexander (Leigh McCloskey), and they move in together, but Dawn is so innocent that their relationship is platonic. When money troubles become intolerable, Dawn asks Frankie Lee for an introduction to her pimp, Swan (Bo Hopkins). Naturally, he's a sadist with a thing for mind games. How deeply will Dawn sink into the skin trade before coming to her senses? Will one of her friends suffer a gruesome fate that makes her realize the error of her ways? Will a tough-talking social worker arrive to provide condescending lectures and sobering statistics? If you've seen even one movie of this type, you know the answers to all of these questions.
         The appeal of this utilitarian melodrama, such as it is, stems from watching a familiar face in a new context. Indeed, there's something unnerving about seeing Jan Brady in skintight slutwear, and in hearing her describe her first sexual encounter: "I felt nothing—just stared at the ceiling and became a woman. What a hype." Hopkins is somewhat menacing in a role so underdeveloped that describing it as one-dimensional would be exaggerating, and TV stalwart Georg Sanford Brown provides the requisite youthful gravitas as the social worker. A sequel titled Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn followed in 1977, earning cult status by depicting gay themes frankly. Plumb returned for Alexander, this time in a supporting role.

Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway: FUNKY

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