I am reposting this old Epinions review, written June 26, 2012, because I mentioned Diana Scarwid today and she was in this movie about drugs in the 80s. I did recently write about Desperate Lives, but that post didn’t include my review… and I worked so hard on that review! So here it is– as/is– for the interested. I had some fun with this writeup, didn’t I?
I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, which means that my childhood was inundated with anti-drug propaganda. One of the most memorable made for television films from my youth is 1982’s Desperate Lives, starring Doug McKeon, Diana Scarwid, Diane Ladd, and a very young Helen Hunt. This film has some unintentionally hilarious moments in it, which is why I would ever think of it 30 years later. Though it has been available on VHS in the past, it eventually went out of print. I see it’s now being offered for $9.99 on Amazon.com, or you might be able to see it for free on YouTube, which is what I opted to do. Or, you can just read this review, which will be very snarky and includes all of the major details of the plot.
Guidance counselor Eileen Phillips (Diana Scarwid) is new blood at a high school where the kids are all stoned. She wants to do something about all the blatant drug abuse, but the teachers and administrators don’t care. Can a couple of special students help Eileen convince the kids to stop doing drugs?
A blow by blow… (cuz are you really going to watch this?)
*Spoilers– skip this section if you don’t want them.* Diana Scarwid, who famously played the adult version of Christina Crawford in Mommie Dearest, plays Eileen Phillips, a young guidance counselor. Just eight years out of high school herself, Eileen Phillips has an annoying, odd, southern accent that sounds like it inspired Eric Cartman fifteen years later. On her first day on the job, Eileen runs into Scott Cameron (Doug McKeon) in the parking lot. Scott appears disoriented because he and his sister, Sandy (Helen Hunt), have just taken a ride in a van where other young folks are doing drugs. Scott apparently has a bit of a contact high.
Eileen immediately takes a shine to 15 year old Scott and asks another guidance counselor if she can trade one of her students for Scott. Later, we see Scott in Eileen’s office and she tries to talk to him about his future. But he’s coming down from his high and is angry and irritable. They have a bonding moment when Eileen implores her new young charge to trust her.
At a pep rally, Eileen is enjoying the band and the cheerleaders until she looks around and spots some unruly boys up in the bleachers shoving stuff up their noses and smoking pot. The football coach stirs up cheer by telling students they “have to get high”. As everyone roars approval, he quips “That’s not what I mean…”
Eileen corners the principal, Dr. Jarvis (William Windom), and immediately takes him to task for all the druggies in his school. Having only been on the job two weeks, Eileen sure doesn’t mind upsetting the apple cart. Dr. Jarvis doesn’t seem to care. He continues greeting students as Eileen tries to talk to him about trying to stop all the drug use. The good principal just can’t be bothered. Later, we discover that Dr. Jarvis will soon be retiring, which explains his apathy. He warns Eileen not to rock the boat too much.
Eileen is in the pool with the students when she spots one of them floating. She shouts for someone to call the paramedics because the young lass isn’t breathing. Miraculously, after a few seconds of CPR, the young girl starts breathing again. When Eileen asks what happened, the only response she gets from the other kids is that the girl is just a “dumb doper”.
The music turns sad and ominous as we end up at Scott and Sandy’s house, where their mom, Carol (Diane Ladd), is setting up for dinner. Scott starts complaining to his mother, who tells him he hangs out with “a bad class of people”. Scott gets p!ssed and storms out of the house as Carol calls to him to come back. But Sandy tells her to let Scott go out and blow off some steam… or maybe just to score some blow. Later, when Sandy tries to talk to Scott, he calls her a b!tch and accuses her of being a doper, too. But Sandy says she only “experiments”; she’s not a drug fiend.
The familiar strains of an 80s era arcade play and I hear the sounds of Donkey Kong. Scott’s there to pick up a stash from his dealer, Ken (Sam Bottoms). Ken apparently sees himself in Scott and recruits him to help him sell drugs. He shows Scott his car and apartment, offers Scott a beer, and tells him to open a briefcase he got handmade in Italy, which Scott pronounces as “gnarly”. The dealer doesn’t drink or drug, but he likes his money. He sees the same qualities in Scott as he introduces him to a lucrative life in designer Jordache jeans!
There’s more ominous music as the scene shifts. Poor Carol is in bed with her husband, John (Tom Atkins), lamenting about how crappy Scott is. The parents are losing control of their kids and hating it. Dad can’t reach Scott, but he can keep a 16 hour a day job at the post office so he can pay the bills.
Scott is soon approached by a pretty 15 year old girl named Susan (Tricia Cast) who’s heard he sells drugs. He doesn’t want to sell her any drugs, but she tells him “everybody else is doing it”. Ahh… famous last words.
Eileen busts a group of b!tchy teen girls in the girl’s bathroom, who are sitting in there getting high. They tell her the same thing… that everybody does it. But Eileen isn’t having it. Her voice is low with disapproval as she reminds the teens that she’s been around and knows what’s going on.
Next, we see Sandy in the chemistry lab with her boyfriend, Steve (Grant Cramer) a cutie pie football player. He’s got some PCP and wants to celebrate their six week anniversary. Sandy tries to resist, but Steve lays on the peer pressure. She snorts; he kisses her. Then we flip back to Scott as he asks out Susan, the cute girl who wanted to buy drugs from him.
Suddenly, we hear ungodly screams and shattering glass as we see Sandy jump out a second story window! Under the influence of that PCP, Sandy has landed on the ground, screaming and writhing, miraculously with no apparent broken bones, cuts, or even bruises. Scott wrestles Sandy to the ground and she goes limp as she passes out. When a student says that only the crazies act like this, Eileen screams that she’s glad everyone’s so sane. Yes, this is one of the unintentionally hilarious parts of this film.
Eileen Phillips is now lamenting that the problem is overwhelming. Her boyfriend, Stan (Art Hindle), is annoyed because Eileen is too much into her job. He’s especially irritated when Eileen asks Stan if he minds if Scott joins them on their bike date that weekend. Eileen wants to show Scott a “new way to get high”. And Stan reluctantly agrees to being cock-blocked by a drug addicted adolescent.
Eileen takes Scott fishing and finds out that Scott has a sense of humor. Then they’re with Stan as appropriately cheesy 80s music plays while they ride their bikes without helmets and take crazy risks doing stunts. They have a good day, but Scott still has a dark side.
In the very next scene, he’s snorting a couple of lines of cocaine just as he’s about to practice swimming. He does a lap, then his cute little girlfriend, Susan shows up. They talk about drugs and Scott is annoyed that she’s on something. It seems the young lady has a complex about being like “Little Bo Peep” and thinks drugs will help her grow up.
Next Ken, the nasty drug dealer, is shown roughing up Julie (Michele Greene) one of his female teenaged clients, who begs him to supply her with something. But he heartlessly shoves her aside, refusing to hook her up. Then, just as Ken is about to leave, Scott shows up and confronts the drug dealer, telling him to stay away from his girlfriend. I’m wondering if Scott is just hoping there will be more for him.
Eileen Phillips, still taking her job very seriously, tracks down the drug dealer and confronts him. I can’t help but think Eileen is a dummy, messing with a drug dealer without any backup. These were the days before cell phones after all. But the dealer is surprisingly mellow… until the two of them find Julie, the shrieking young girl the dealer had kicked out, dead on the floor of his apartment. She has committed suicide.
At swim practice, Eileen pulls Scott aside and reads him the riot act. They have an argument as Eileen tells Scott that he’s a doper. Scott finally breaks down and tells her he has to do something to get away from “all the crap”. And Eileen, in all her wisdom, tells Scott to try a movie or a book. Somehow, I can’t imagine that advice is going to go very far with the average drug addict.
Then at a faculty meeting, Eileen delivers a sermon about all the druggie kids at the school, and poor dead Julie is a good way to raise the issue with the kids. Here, we see Dr. Joyce Brothers in a cameo, playing Mrs. Watson, a woman who couldn’t care less about the drug problems and wants to discuss band uniforms.
Over Thanksgiving dinner, Scott’s family is trying to engage him. But he passes out, his face landing in his plate full of turkey and mashed potatoes. Then as Eileen and Stan have a picnic, they argue because Eileen is too hung up on the druggie teens and doesn’t care enough about their relationship.
Sandy, now sporting black eyes and casts on her arm and leg, takes Scott out for a walk. He tells her he’s taken Quaaludes and that’s why he passed out over dinner. Sandy tries to talk Scott out of using drugs, but Scott takes off on his skateboard, leaving poor gimpy Sandy standing there.
As Scott is angrily skateboarding down the street, the music turns hopeful. Susan pulls up in her car. She’s fifteen, so she’s clearly driving illegally. The window rolls down and Scott calls her “Sandy” instead of Susan. Oops! She invites him to get in the car with her. They decide to go up to the mountains. While they drive, Susan tells Scott to open the glove compartment, where she’s stashed some primo angel dust. Susan reassures Scott that this angel dust is “clean” and they can enjoy it without worrying about freaking out like Sandy did. The two have an annoying conversation, peppered with some very contrived sounding teen lingo. They light up while Susan is driving and the two of them are completely out of it as the road grows curvier. Finally, Susan is stoned out of her mind and still driving… neither is wearing a seatbelt, mind you, as Susan’s car goes through the guard rail and down an embankment. Another unintentionally hilarious moment happens as we see a very cheesy special effect. The windshield cracks, but it looks like it was done in cartoon rather than for real!
Eileen comes to the hospital. Thunder rolls and it’s pouring outside. Eileen introduces herself to Scott’s parents, who have gathered around their son’s hospital bed. We see Scott looking out of it, his hands restrained in leather straps. Scott has a nasty concussion and doesn’t even ask about Susan, his darling girlfriend who has perished in the crash.
It’s Christmas time, two weeks after his Thanksgiving accident. Scott still doesn’t know what’s happened. Eileen visits him at his home. Scott asks what happened. Eileen tries to change the subject, but he presses her for details. Eileen tells Scott that “God has a way of blocking painful memories from our minds so that we don’t replay them over and over again…” Not sure God has a lot to do with it, but it sounds good. Eileen talks to Scott’s mom and I have to say, Diane Ladd does a good job playing the anguished mom, wondering how she ended up with two druggie kids. Later that night, Scott wakes up screaming like a banshee as he realizes his cute girlfriend, Susan, is dead. He’s hysterical as he throws a chair through the window. Is it the drugs or grief? The paramedics come to take Scott away, presumably for a shot of Thorazine.
Eileen reflects on what’s happened to her favorite student. She has finally had enough. During a Christmas assembly, Eileen goes through a bunch of lockers and collects a bunch of drug stashes. She puts it all on a cart and pushes the cart into the gynmasium, where she proceeds to burn the drugs in front of everyone. I can’t help but wonder how the burning drugs don’t make everyone high, but I guess the writers were going for a dramatic effect. On another note, the fact that there’s a Christmas assembly and the choir is singing a religious song really shows how dated this film is. In any case, after Eileen collects all the drugs, I’m left thinking this was one stoned school!
Eileen delivers another unintentially hilarious speech in front of the student body as she lists all of the students who have been maimed or killed thanks to drugs. She’s presumably sober when she does this. Just say no, kids! And shockingly, Eileen’s speech seems to get through to everybody! One by one, the students come up to the burning cart with drugs on it and drops more into the flames, apparently just because of Eileen Phillips’ speech. A round of applause erupts as the kids decide to go straight. I wonder if they’ll still be straight tomorrow or the next day, but the ending does at least allow this film to end on a triumphant note.
Desperate Lives was obviously meant to be a very serious film. I know it was shown at schools in the 1980s as a way to dissuade students from taking illegal drugs. But I have to say, Diana Scarwid’s performance is pretty trippy. I was impressed by some of the other actors, namely Doug McKeon and Helen Hunt, who are clearly much too talented for this tripe.
I don’t think this film is particularly effective, despite its strong anti-drug propaganda bent. The dramatic moments go way too far, which makes this movie too over the top to be taken seriously. Yes, it’s true that some people ruin their lives over drugs. But Desperate Lives only shows the most drastic and dramatic pitfalls to drug abuse peppered with the Valley Girl speak that was so popular in the early 1980s. From the moment we see Helen Hunt jumping out of a window, screaming her head off, it’s very clear some of these scenes are intended to shock and scare straight. And what they ultimately end up doing is making viewers laugh. Or at least they make ME laugh. At least we’re spared seeing these kids in rehab.
This is your typical 80s era movie of the week. I watch this and wonder if people were really that simple in the 80s. I can’t imagine today’s teens taking this movie seriously at all. If you watch it, you will probably laugh. I certainly wouldn’t spend money on this film, but it’s fun for a laugh on YouTube.
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