How many Harvard students does it take to change a light bulb? According to Judge Maurice Cobbs, two—one to mix the martinis and one to call the electrician.
When there was nothing to believe in, she believed in herself.
Homeless to Harvard is everything that a TV movie of the week should be: shocking, emotional, and inspiring, with just a touch of humor. Plus, it's based on a true story, which helps. Unlike most Lifetime original movies, this one cuts the camp to a minimum and focuses instead on the startling implications of Liz Murray's story. Liz Murray came to a crossroads in her life and had to decide whether she would become like her parents, addled and drug-addicted, or if she wanted something better for herself. Liz Murray chose wisely.
The central idea behind the movie, that you are where you are in life because of choice, and that you have the power to change your place in life whenever you choose to do so, is a remarkable and rarely-seen theme on television. Although Liz certainly had no shortage of excuses on which to hang what many saw as her inevitable slide into hopelessness and poverty or worse, Liz refused to take the self-pitying route, took responsibility for her life, and did what she needed to do. Naturally, this sort of story attracts all sorts of superlatives: Remarkable, amazing, incredible, unbelievable, astounding. But Liz Murray's story is none of those. Quite the opposite, in fact. If there is a lesson to be learned from Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story, it is that anyone could do what Liz Murray did. Anyone can make that choice.
Facts of the Case
Thora Birch (American Beauty) is Liz Murray, a slum kid from the Bronx with a mentally ill mother (Kelly Lynch, Drugstore Cowboy) and an uninterested father (Michael Riley), both of whom are disease-ridden and addicted to drugs. Homeless by the time she was 15, and living out of dumpsters and on subways, Liz seemed to be nothing more than another sad tale of New York's poor and disadvantaged. But by the time Liz was 19, she had excelled academically—while living on the street—and ultimately won admission to Harvard University. This dramatization of Liz Murray's journey earned three Emmy nominations, including one for Birch as Best Actress.
Charles Dickens didn't write Liz Murray's story, although I'll bet he would have loved to. Born into crushing poverty to less-than-ideal parents, Liz fit the label of "disadvantaged youth" as well as anybody: constantly hungry, living in her parents' squalor, Liz's childhood was no picnic. Homeless to Harvard doesn't pull any punches in that regard, making this one of the grittiest Lifetime movies (I bet you thought you'd never hear that phrase) I've ever seen. Thora Birch turns in her usual exceptional performance (hey, we can all overlook Dungeons and Dragons, right?), but the young actress portraying the younger Liz Murray, Jennifer Pisana (Get a Clue), is equally remarkable—she's absolutely heartrending as the waifish lice-infested slum child who lacks even basic hygiene skills and is known at school as the smelly girl. (The bathtub in the apartment is so clogged with dirt and filthy water that it obviously hasn't been used in a long, long time.) I imagine that condensing Liz's life into an hour and a half wasn't easy, but writer Ronnie Kern manages the task by never allowing the story to become too maudlin or campy. It does have its moments (are we to believe that Liz's dad is an "intellectual" because he can answer all the questions on Jeopardy?), but those moments are thankfully few and far between.
I won't go into detail about the full extent of Liz's home life, because seeing it in the film is far more effective, and you wouldn't believe it, anyway. Social workers are no help; they threaten to take Liz to a girls' home if she doesn't "clean the place up" and go to school. Eventually, they make good on their promise, throwing Liz into a horrific environment of brutal and vicious young women, the kind who fight constantly and attack each other with bleach. Up to this point, it is hard to say what was more traumatic for young Liz: watching her drug-addicted half-blind schizophrenic mother beg and rage for the welfare money so that she can buy a fix (Dad can't be bothered—he's watching Jeopardy) or watching her drug-addicted half-blind schizophrenic mother be dragged off screaming by the cops and welfare workers to God-only-knows-where (Dad can't be bothered—he's in the kitchen shooting up). But when she gets out of the home, things are worse: Her father has been evicted and is in a shelter somewhere, and her mother, who is dying of AIDS, has been forced to live with Liz's grandfather (don't even get me started on him).
Kelly Lynch's performance as Liz's mother, Jean, is the sort of thing that would have made her a shoo-in for the Oscar if she'd only had the sense to save it for a big-screen production; the Academy loves to reward actors for playing people as damaged as Jean Murray. Plus, since she's handicapped, mentally ill, and addicted to drugs, the Academy would have been orgasmic. Her Oscar loss is Lifetime's gain, however, as Lynch's admittedly gut-churning performance provides strong support for Birch's low-key performance as Liz, while never overshadowing it: a testament to both actresses' skill.
Things hit their lowest point when Liz winds up living on the streets at the tender age of 15, surviving with a friend by dumpster diving, shoplifting, and working odd jobs. But when Liz's mom dies and is buried in a pauper's patch, Liz takes stock of her life and decides to make a change. I applaud the film for never trivializing that aspect of the story: Liz knows that she is homeless because of choice, she never succumbs to self-pity (as her friend does), she never blames anyone for her position, and she accepts full responsibility for the direction that her life has taken. Because she takes responsibility for her place in life, she also takes control of her ability to change it. Determined that her life will not take the same path that her parents' lives did, Liz works her butt off to—well, if you read the title, then you know how it all turns out.
Sorry, chum. No spoilers here. You'll just have to rent it and find out for yourself.
Homeless to Harvard probably looks pretty much like it did on television; the picture is fairly average, but clear. The stereo mix is adequate, but not spectacular—hey, this is a Lifetime TV movie, okay? Mediocrity is the standard for excellence, and this movie surpasses the standard. A nice special feature is a brief interview with the real live Liz Murray, although it is so brief that it almost seems pointless. However, compared to the 22-second "Inspirational Message From Liz Murray," the interview seems positively epic. Special features like these don't really add that much to the DVD release and make it seem as if the studio just grabbed whatever they had their hands on at that moment to make the disc look a little meatier (which may well be the case). But they have to know that they aren't fooling anyone. Don't they?
After watching Liz's story play out, you might be tempted to think of how lucky she was. Don't. It wasn't luck. Luck is defined as good derived unexpectedly. But there is nothing unexpected about Liz's success. It wasn't random chance that saved Liz Murray—it was her own hard work and determination. It would have been so easy for Liz to blame her circumstances on something outside of herself—on bad luck, God, the Devil, capitalism, the system, the man, her parents, Whitey, society, the President—and if she had, she'd still be sitting in a dumpster somewhere with an empty tummy.
Liz Murray is an inspiration, all right. And she's just another example of how powerful individual choice can be.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Interview with Liz Murray
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