From the Archive : “Born Innocent”

Welcome to “Throwback Thursday,” where once a week (or less) I decide to post a re-written article that originally appeared on Geek Juice.  This article, about the film Born Innocent was originally published on February 08, 2012.  I choose this movie because I’ve been doing research into juvenile justice lately and happened to be thinking of this one over the past few days.

Linda Blair starred in the shocking made-for television film Born Innocent when she was 14, fresh off the set of The Exorcist.  Though the movie tries to be sentimental and plays the sappiest music cues to let the audience know when they’re supposed to be moved by this drama, it is still exploitation.  It sensationalizes the whole young girls behind bars trope and tries to make a big deal out of nothing.  Born Innocent is really just cruel propaganda that shamelessly attempts to exploit the ignorance of its audience.  The movie claims to be based on a novel (or rather “suggested by” a book) but I have my doubts that this mess of social inaccuracy was based upon/inspired by/suggested by anything that actually exists in the real world.  However, I will still respect the impact this film had upon television history.

The key scene that makes Born Innocent controversial is this:

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Linda Blair is raped with a plunger… on public television.

As mentioned previously, this was a made-for-tv film.  It aired right at the start of prime time and this rape scene was every bit as shocking then as it is now.  Some stupid kids were “inspired” by this scene and carried out the same brutalization on their 8-year-old sister.  Of course people got mad and there were court cases and the FCC mandated that the first hour of prime-time, typically 8pm-9pm was to be considered the “Family Viewing Hour,” and that only family-friendly programming could air during that time slot.  Television producer Norman Lear was furious about this as now his hit show All in the Family was moved to a later time slot and took a huge dive in ratings.  Lear teamed up with the WGA and argued that this “Family Viewing Hour” mandate was infringing upon their freedom of speech.  Eventually the courts ruled that this was unconstitutional and that the FCC had overstepped its bounds.  However, the major television networks still, for the most part, abide by this standard that the the first hour of prime-time be more family friendly.  In fact, ABC was the first major network to stop showing trailers for R-rated films during this hour.  And that’s a brief bit of television history made by this stupid movie, Born Innocent.

Hey, 7pm!  The whole family can watch the drama about this cute girl.
Hey, 7pm! The whole family can watch the drama about this cute girl.

About the movie itself…  Linda Blair is teenage runaway Chris Parker.  She’s arrested and taken to jail for nothing except running away which is a status offense, not really a crime.  Her parents have told the courts; “We don’t want her back, keep her.”  So she’s taken to a girl’s prison.  I don’t know whether to call bullshit on this or not.  The goal of the juvenile justice system, since it was first created in 1899, was to rehabilitate youth – not incarcerate them.  True, there were reforms throughout the 70’s that formalized the process, making incarceration easier (and don’t even get me started on how the privatization of juvenile detention facilities in the 80’s  changed it so much more).  Now, the one thing that’s persisted with the juvenile justice system that remains today is that one doesn’t go to prison unless they’ve actually committed a crime.  Running away from home is a status offense and punished with probation or not punished at all.  On top of that, parents can’t just say: “I don’t want my kid anymore, you take it.”  If parents DO attempt to throwaway their kids like this, the US Department of Health and Human Services intervenes and places the kid into foster care – THEY DON’T PUT THE KID IN PRISON!  At the very least, the kid will spend a moment or two in a group home, see a social worker, and perhaps work towards why they wanted to run away from home in the first place.

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Linda Blair, hardened criminal.

The author behind Born Innocent basically took a statistic that said “Runaways end up in prison” and ran with that without filling in the blanks to find out WHY runaway children eventually find themselves in prison – that would be because they committed a crime.

 

There is a point later in the film where Chris’ parents decide to take her back.  This is another thing so separated from reality it boggles the mind.  Once you’ve given up your kid to the state you can’t just say: “I’ve changed my mind,” and get your kid back the next day.  We get to see Chris’ homelife and why it was so bad that she ran away in the first place.  Her father is an abusive man and when she strikes Chris, she runs away again.  The police come in and send her back to prison.  Why?  What crime did she commit?  In fact, as a victim of abuse, she had a valid reason to flee.  In reality, even misogynistic 70’s reality, a victim of child abuse would go to foster care, not prison.  What is the message here?  You either stay living with your abusive parents or you go to prison?  Are we to honestly believe that the brutality of child abuse is accepted by society and that if you refuse to conform to this you go to prison?  Again, this is taking a statistic  that “Children who were abused by their parents sometimes end up in prison later in life” and running with that tidbit without bothering to fill in the blanks.  Some victims of child abuse end up in prison later – BECAUSE THEY COMMITTED A CRIME!  One only needs to research actual studies of crime causation to learn this, This movie’s logic is simply faceplam after faceplam of failed research and illogical assumptions.

Added to this, many of the girls in this place have severe mental problems – and that is their “crime.”  Several times they refer to Chis as suffering from depression – and this is treated by locking her in isolation.  There is one moment where another girl’s mental health is brought into question with a simple: “I think she might have some sort of mental disorder.”  Is there ANY attempt at treatment for these mental disorders?  What world does this movie take place in where “being depressed” is illegal?

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Of course the prison set is naturally depressing.

The movie ends up being very similar to the 1950 film Caged as it focuses on one character who entered the system as an innocent but through a series of unfortunate events eventually became a bitter, lying and manipulative sociopath like the rest of the hardened criminals.  It would be a good story – if its premise was rooted in reality.  There are several attempts where the movie shows that this was a competent director – many scenes that are shot with the necessary amounts of brutality to tell its story, and other scenes drawn out with a static camera and creative blocking from the actors.  I won’t deny that it IS well directed, this director and the cast certainly did well with the woefully inaccurate script they had to work with.  However, it is impossible to become emotionally vested in this story when it is absolutely lacking in realistic character motivation or any sense of logic about the “grim realities of life.”  The film doesn’t say it was based on a book by the same name, instead it says it was “Suggested by the novel ‘Born Innocent’.”  Suggested by.. as in they just made all this up, didn’t they.  The film, though well-made lacks in any kind of message and simply ends up being an infuriating mess of failed morals and confused logic.  More frustrating is the amount of reviews I came across PRAISING this film and its “message.”  What message?  That abused children should stay living with their psychotic parents?  That children should be imprisoned even though they’ve committed no crime?  That mental illness is a crime and should not be treated medically?  Were these people watching a different movie?  Ultimately, my impression of the film comes down to only this:

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