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The 1970’s are usu­ally pin­pointed by cult movie types as the golden era of made-for-t.v. film­mak­ing, the time where tele­vi­sion net­works veered into schlock ter­ri­tory as they tried to prove they could be every bit as hard-hitting as what was unspool­ing at the cine­plex.  However, the 1980’s are just as strong a time for schlocky t.v. fare and deliv­ered plenty of gems wor­thy of explo­ration for exploita­tion film fans.  Anti-drug movies from the 1980’s in par­tic­u­lar tend to be mem­o­rable, par­tic­u­larly when the film­mak­ers’ good inten­tions out­pace their under­stand­ing of drug addic­tion.  One of the all-time clas­sics is Desperate Lives, a wild anti-drug effort that goes to nihilis­tic extremes to drive its impas­sioned mes­sage home.

Desperate Lives estab­lishes its subtle-as-a-flying-mallet tone with its first scene, in which hep­cat drug dealer Ken Baynes (Sam Bottoms) waits for his teenage cus­tomers in a grave­yard.  Soon we are intro­duced to Scott (Doug McKeon) and his older sis, Sandy (Helen Hunt), en route to their first day of school.  Helen tries to look out for her impres­sion­able lit­tle bro, despite occa­sion­ally doing drugs with a dope-loving boyfriend.  Ken takes note of Scott and begins the process of groom­ing him to be his assis­tant dealer.

It’s also the first day of school for Eileen Phillips (Diana Scarwid), a guid­ance coun­selor with über-naïve dreams of help­ing the kids real­ize their poten­tial.  She quickly dis­cov­ers the school is a ver­i­ta­ble drug den where tired teach­ers turn a blind eye while kids toke up dur­ing pep ral­lies and admin­is­tra­tors put anti-drug pro­grams on the back burner.  Eileen reaches out to Doug to help him but “pres­sure” keeps him turn­ing back to drugs, despite the poten­tial of a rela­tion­ship with fel­low stu­dent Susan (Tricia Cast).  Pretty soon, the kids are drop­ping like smoked-out roach-clips as Eileen grows ever more fran­tic in her desire to put an end to this epidemic.

Desperate Lives is best known to casual view­ers as “the movie where Helen Hunt jumps out a win­dow after snort­ing PCP.” Rest assured, that scene is here and is every bit as hys­ter­i­cally overblown as it sounds.  Ditto for the film itself.  It was penned by Lew Hunter, a respected screen­writer and t.v. exec who has also penned respected texts on the art of screen­writ­ing.  His work here is com­pe­tently struc­tured and keeps the viewer engaged — but it’s also unin­ten­tion­ally hilar­i­ous and rid­dled with cliches.  Every famil­iar anti-drug flick moment is trot­ted out here — “the first hit is free,” “everybody’s doing it, “she’s just a doper,” etc. — and the dia­logue is full of clink­ers in its attempts to approx­i­mate gen­uine teen lingo (“Don’t has­sle me, pansy!  I can han­dle.”).

Hunter is pas­sion­ate about his mes­sage but so woe­fully out of touch with the real­i­ties of his sub­ject mat­ter that the pro­ceed­ings instantly devolve into camp hilar­ity.  He also goes for sledge­ham­mer melo­drama wher­ever pos­si­ble, which doesn’t help his cause: every argu­ment becomes a shout­ing match and quiet o.d.‘s are avoided in favor of extended, shriek-heavy freak-outs.  The sec­ond half of the movie piles on the may­hem with sadis­tic glee and then sud­denly switches gears to give view­ers the most absurd and implau­si­ble “inspi­ra­tional” finale pos­si­ble.  Robert Michael Lewis, another t.v. vet, directs the pro­ceed­ings in an anony­mous man­ner and the blandly com­pe­tent back­drop he pro­vides for the tale makes its freak-outs and the shout­ing matches all the more unnerving.

However, the ele­ment that puts Desperate Lives over the top is the act­ing.  McKeon rants and whines with the best of them, Bottoms is per­fectly oily as the smooth-talking dealer and Scarwid is all nostril-flaring sin­cer­ity as the inef­fec­tual coun­selor (her idea of show­ing Scott an alter­na­tive to drugs is to take him on a frig­gin’ bike ride).  Hunt is sub­tle com­pared to the afore­men­tioned trio and prob­a­bly fares the best but her PCP freak­out is a schlock moment for the ages (it was famously immor­tal­ized in a 1990’s-era Saturday Night Live skit).

Cult film afi­ciona­dos will be pleased to note the pres­ence of The Brood’s Art Hindle as Scarwid’s neglected boyfriend and John Carpenter reg­u­lar Tom Atkins and Diane Ladd as the par­ents of the doomed teen heroes.  Ladd in par­tic­u­lar is a lot of fun as the hard-driving but naïve mom, scor­ing a grandly obnox­ious mono­logue about how easy her kids have it.

In short, the mix­ture of well-intentioned yet mis­guided notions about drugs and go-for-broke melo­drama at play in Desperate Lives make it a per­fect cin­e­matic speed­ball for camp cin­ema devo­tees.  It’s even got a swell theme song by Rick Springfield.  Spend 100 min­utes with this flick and you will def­i­nitely be high on schlock.

And here’s a wickedly funny mash-up com­bin­ing Desperate Lives footage, Keyboard Cat and some spe­cial musi­cal guests: