In my Criminal Element appreciation of Orrie Hitt’s 1960 noir novel Wayward Girl, I compared the book to the 1974 made-for-TV movie Born Innocent. As I pointed out there, the two stories have some surface likenesses in their plots. Ultimately, both are about teenage girls who are left to fend for themselves in a wicked world because their parents are no damn good. I went on to say that in a deeper way, what connects the book to the movie, for me, is the emotionally devastated way both leave me feeling.
I’ve watched Born Innocent three times now. I saw it once when it re-aired on TV, when I was roughly the same age as its lead character: 14. I watched it again when it was released on DVD in 2004. And I gave it a fresh viewing before writing this post. Its impact on me has been the same through each sitting. It floors me.
The lead actor of Born Innocent is Linda Blair, who in the year before had been famously possessed by Satan on the big screen in The Exorcist. As Chris Parker, she plays a character going through a different kind of hell. Chris, 14 as previously mentioned, becomes a ward of the county and a resident of a juvenile detention center/reform school. Chris hasn’t committed any crimes. She is simply a repeat runaway, one whose parents have given up on her and turned her over to the mercies (such as they are) of the authorities. If you were Chris at 14 you would probably want to run away from home, too. Her dad’s a physically abusive hot-head and her mom’s a neurotic waster. Neither parent has anything like the wherewithal to create a stable home environment for their daughter. Meanwhile, Chris lives under the constant threat of being thrashed by her mercurial father. Chris has a brother who is sympathetic and to whom she used to be close; but he is grown now and has fled the home and started a family of his own, and he is too busy with that to be able to offer Chris any real emotional support, or physical shelter.
So Chris has nobody, really. And the juvi lockup now has her. It’s Chris’s existence in the detention center – as well as the way of life for all the girls who have been sent there, in addition to that of the staff of the place — that is explored in the tale. What we see is what becomes of Chris when she is thrown into the facility and forced to coexist with the denizens there. One staff member is especially caring to Chris, while others are somewhere between coldly indifferent and decent but ineffectual. Likewise, she has a vast range of experiences in interacting with the other young girls at the center. One incident has her as the victim in a horrific attack scene, one that was controversial for its time in 1974 and still would be seen that way now.
On display in Born Innocent, as in the Hitt novel, is what life can be like for a teenage girl who doesn’t have the safety net of a stable home, who has to grow up before she’s ready and fend for herself in a twisted environment and without the protection of an adult who is responsible for her. Blair’s performance in portraying the stricken girl is powerful. Really, all of the main actors are convincing in playing their various parts, their characters combining to show the desolate world in which Chris and the other troubled girls live. I’ve heard a lot of people say, when discussing some of the acclaimed dramatic TV shows that have aired in recent years, that the programs are so good “because they’re so real.” Well, in 1974 Born Innocent was some TV fare that got about as real as real could be. It’s a brutal, unflinching, heart-rending tale that lays bare the life of unprotected teenage girls who are in custody. If you’re looking for “babes behind bars” camp entertainment, look somewhere else.
Around the time that I first saw this movie, I was close to a girl of 14 who went through some heavy life changes. I’m not going to go into detail about what was going on with her, but will suffice to say that there was major upheaval in her familial life. At that time, she became friends with a girl who also had some troubles at home and who was a wild child much more streetwise than my friend. I warned my friend about getting involved with this girl, fearing that she’d be led astray and into danger through the association. But my friend said that she wasn’t going to stop hanging with the other girl, because, as she put it, “she understands.” That kind of alliance – one that comes about between young people who are brought together when they are left adrift by the adult world – is movingly explored in Born Innocent.
I remember that when I watched Born Innocent as a teenager, I looked over at my mother, who watched it with me, and appreciatively thought, “She doesn’t have to care about me.” When I first saw the DVD in 2004, my infant daughter got a couple extra hugs that day. When I sat through the film earlier today, my emotions got engaged again. I always want Chris’s dad to be the one who gets turned over to the police for child abuse. I want her mom to get some psychiatric help. I want Chris’s brother to make room in his new home for his little sister; and if he really can’t, I want to adopt Chris and take care of her myself. She’s a cool kid – smart, deep-thinking, loyal, unselfish, wise beyond her years, a good conversationalist . . . She’s so real.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.
See all posts by Brian Greene for Criminal Element.