Forty-five years ago today, the TV movie Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway aired on NBC. Jan from The Brady Bunch playing a teen sex worker? Yes please. This is when they made TV movies that were really telling a story, perhaps a cautionary one, one that will teach a lesson. A link to the entire movie is below.
Written by: Dalene Young
Directed by: Randal Kleiser
Starring: Eve Plumb, Leigh J. McCloskey, Lynn Carlin, William Schallert
Theme music composer: Fred Karlin
Producer: Douglas S. Cramer
Cinematography: Jacques R. Marquette
Editor: Carroll Sax
Running time: 120 minutes (with commercials)
Production company: Douglas S. Cramer Company
Original release: September 27, 1976
Followed by: Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn
Dawn Wetherby is a 15 year old girl living in a small community, with her alcoholic mother and two younger brothers. After a humiliating incident involving her mother at a school dance berating her, she decides to run away to Hollywood. She takes what money she has and a bag filled of clothes, and buys a bus ticket to California.
Right away, reality sets in as she realizes she doesn’t have money to survive on her own, and her minor age makes it nearly impossible for her to get a job. She is mugged by the same guy who cons her out of a dollar at a diner, but is rescued by a streetwise young prostitute named Frankie Lee, who also helps her get her money back from the mugger.
She has developed a cough from lack of food and shelter, but a kind woman working at a coffee shop tells her about a clinic she can go to. At the clinic, a young man notices Dawn and introduces himself as Alexander. He tries helping Dawn out by letting her piggyback on his appointment. Alex invites her to stay at his apartment, telling her she doesn’t have to do anything in return, he just genuinely wants to help her.
Dawn believes that Alex works at a liquor store, but one night she follows him and discovers he’s a street hustler; despite her discovery, she doesn’t bring it up and they never talk about it, continuing the ruse that Alex works in a liquor store. Dawn’s lack of life experiences and naivety leads her to be an easy target for everyone.
Her first attempt at prostitution ends up with the john feeling sorry for her and guilty about the situation. He tells her to keep the $20 he gave her and that she should go back home. Dawn does maintain contact with her mother, but lies that she’s doing okay in Hollywood, while her mother tells her that she’s trying to better herself by going to AA meetings, but Dawn still refuses to go home.
Feeling panicked after finding a note from Alex that he’ll be gone for a few days, Dawn seeks out Frankie Lee and tells her that she wants to be a prostitute for Frankie Lee’s pimp, Swan (even though she had previously saw Swan beat Frankie Lee in a car). Right away, Swan gains control of Dawn through fear, and she begins working for him immediately.
Her first professional john is a hotel pickup at the lobby, but the man beat her and didn’t pay either, resulting in her phoning Alex to ask him for money. Alex shows up at Dawn’s motel room and realizes what she’s gotten herself into. She tells him she needs the money to give to Swan. Alex gives her the $30 that he was going to use for his rent, but they end up getting into an argument over Alex’s hypocrisy since he’s a male prostitute himself.
Eventually Alex and Dawn reconcile with each other, and they develop more and more feelings for each other as the days go by, culminating in them finally being in a relationship with each other. Alex is also a talented artist and has been painting a mural on one wall of his apartment of his version of Alexander the Great; because of this, Dawn wants to get an expensive book for Alex as a present. She can’t buy the book, but she very boldly tries to just walk out with it, intent on stealing it.
After being arrested, Swan bails her out, but she soon discovers that Frankie Lee died at the hands of a john. Swan tells Dawn it’s her fault that Frankie Lee is dead because he had to go bail her out for stealing a book instead of being able to protect Frankie Lee.
A probation officer named Donald Umber tries to help Dawn, but he’s realistic to her cause. She lies completely about her file to him, and he makes little effort to verify anything. In desperation Alex goes to Umber to try to save Dawn from herself and Swan, but Umber tells Alex he’s limited in what he can do about the situation, especially if Dawn doesn’t want to go home or help herself.
Umber also helps Alex by getting him a job as a stock boy in a big department store so he can get out of that lifestyle himself. Dawn becomes more emboldened and detached as a prostitute; even after Umber shows her the body of another one of Swan’s girls in the morgue, she refuses to go home or rid herself of Swan.
Swan has found a new fresh girl, and Dawn is no longer working hotel lobbies looking for johns, having quickly been replaced by the new girl. Instead she has been downgraded to a streetwalker to try to get her clients. After another reconciliation between Alex and Dawn in the streets while she’s hustling, Swan follows Alex and gives him a beating.
Dawn finds Alex badly bruised in his apartment and calls Umber for help. Despite Alex getting beaten up, it’s still not enough for Dawn to leave Swan or give up prostitution, or to even go home to her mom. Swan tells Dawn that she must move in with him like his other girls, and he wants her there the next day.
Alex finally finishes his mural on his apartment wall. Before Dawn leaves, she pays for the hot water and electricity to be turned on in his apartment. Alex confesses that he loves Dawn, and they consummate their relationship. He gives her a heart pendant necklace. While Alex is sleeping, Dawn sneaks out of the apartment with her clothes, leaving the necklace behind. She goes off to Swan’s place.
When Alex wakes up and realizes that Dawn has left, he searches for her at Swan’s. He tells Dawn that if she tells him their night together meant nothing to her, then he’ll leave for good. Dawn tells him it meant nothing to her and she was just using him for shelter and food, but as Alex starts walking out the door, Dawn confesses that it’s not true.
Alex grabs Dawn and the two of them makes a breakaway from Swan. Swan chases after them, and is able to confront Alex with a switchblade, while Dawn runs out into the streets screaming for help. When the ambulance and police arrive, Swan has disappeared and Alex is injured.
The movie ends with Alex seeing Dawn off at the bus depot. His arm is in a sling recovering, and he promises her that he’ll go down to get her when he’s saved enough money. Dawn boards the bus and heads back home, where she’s picked up by her sobered mother. They walk back inside their house together.