The Wicked World of Abandonment: Born Innocent (1974)

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.

Linda Blair, who looks a lot better when she’s not being overtaken by the devil.

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.

Comments

  1. David Cranmer

    A superb article, Brian. The only thing I can add is I saw it back then and it left a strong impression and I always thought Linda Blair was exceptional in that particular role. Glad to hear it endures.

  2. Brian Greene

    David, thanks for the comment. This is clearly a movie that has had a large impact on me. Great to hear you had a similar reaction to it. And yes, Linda Blair’s perfomance is extraordinary in my opinion.

  3. Joe Brosnan

    I have yet to see this, Brian, but I’m interested. And luckily enough, it seems some Linda Blair fans have uploaded the entire film onto YouTube. So I’ll be watching soon. Here’s the [b][url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lzy9qqaGmk]link [/url][/b]for others who are interested.

  4. Brian Greene

    Thanks, Joe. I hope it works for you. Let me know what you think after watching. And thanks for putting up the link.

  5. Scott Adlerberg

    Brian, I second what Edward says. I remember seeing this when it first aired in 1974, at the age of 12. I had not seen The Exorcist because my parents wouldn’t let me but everyone knew who Linda Blair is – already she was the girl always playing roles in these controversial movies where she’s in SERIOUS trouble. It made a big impression, no question. I haven’t seen it since, but it’s good to hear that it holds up so well so many years later and to an adult watching it.

  6. Brian Greene

    Scott, thanks for the comment. It seems like this movie impacted a bunch of us in a similar way in our younger years. Strong stuff.

  7. JR

    Hi, there. I put this on the Facebook fan page. Good article.

    http://www.facebook.com/BornInnocentFilm

  8. Brian Greene

    @JR: Thanks for the share! I’m glad you liked it.

  9. Rodrigo

    Hi:
    Great headline!
    I found it after looking for this classic… Always controversial/shocking_but realistic.
    I imagine the reactions it caused in 1974 (the year I was born).
    I watched it when I was a teenager (15 y.o.), half of it (because when I put to record it taped half of it): and I saw myself like the character CHRISTINE PARKER (having problems when we are young); like BULLYING, FAKE FRIENDS – I studied in a school where I hated it. I confess this film influenced me in a ‘bad’ thing (don´t worry… I didn´t rape or I was raped, laughs!). I ran from this school some times.
    Then when I was older (21*), I could see the film: but some years ago I watched the WHOLE SCENE IN THE END (RIOT). In TV i didn´t see (it was cut or any problem). I am still shocked.
    But the film shows what happens in every country. And the word that come on my mind: INJUSTICE… Having contact with people is not easy (one of the reasons that the LAW exists… and even there is injustice!). In my country (BRAZIL) it´s common. And the violence is getting worse.
    My parents used to live there in USA before I born (and since this time the violence was notable). Even in SAFE (or RICH) countries problems like that exist.
    Well, FAMILY (and with STRUCTURE) is still the best way to create a person: vicious like DRUGS, CHILDREN WHO ARE NOT WANTED turn the things worse.
    Life is really dangerous.
    Thank you,
    Rodrigo

    * When I turned 20 I moved away (changed the city… RIO DE JANEIRO was (and is) dangerous). I live in the south and the violence is becoming like my city. And this time I was older (matured).

  10. Joteli

    … caraca. Que frieza. Só gentata dos EUA pode negociar!

  11. Genu Hitalo

    Vai ver que o tal aki PIOR QUE AS ABORDADAS na produção.
    E como há mirado nos EUA.

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