Freedom (1981): Not Just Another Word for Nothin’ Left to Lose

It’s funny how certain TV moments stick with you through the years. Such has been the case for me, at any rate, with the made-for-TV movie Freedom, which aired on ABC on May 18, 1981, and that I watched again this morning for the first time since then. Written by Barbara Turner and inspired in part by the experiences of Turner’s daughter Carrie Morrow, it stars Mare Winningham as troubled teenager Libby, who finds her way—and herself—in the world after becoming an emancipated minor…and joining a traveling carnival. The story is framed with scenes in a recording studio, where Libby is laying down tracks. (Janis Ian, it should be noted, wrote six songs for the film.)

If it sounds convoluted, it is to an extent, yet it’s also a well-acted meditation that tackles a tough topic in a decidedly non-sensational manner. Libby is basically in an existential free fall. “I’m sorry for messing up your life,” she says early on to her journalist-mom (Jennifer Warren), who she blames for everything wrong in her life; no matter what her mother says, she takes it as a criticism. Her long-absent father (Roy Thinnes), on the other hand, gets a free pass due to his willingness to throw money her way. Libby wants to be on her own? No problem! He’ll just send her the $140 in monthly child support that would otherwise go to the mom.

(Los Angeles Times, 5/18/1981)

Libby soon discovers, however, that her desire for “freedom” is equalled by her need for family, be it real or makeshift. A night out at a traveling carnival introduces her to carnie Brett (Taylor Negron), the two hit it off and before you know it she’s hitching a ride to Lodi, the next stop on the carnival circuit. Soon enough, she and another carnie, Bill (Peter Horton), are a thing and… yeah, that’s a bit of an iffy storyline due to the age differential (she’s 16, after all) and it’s further if-ed up when she catches him with another girl about her age. “Are you going to make this your life?” he asks, defending himself. “Cause this is where I want to be. This is my life.” When she tries to tell him that, indeed, she sees the carnie world as her own, he pushes back, telling her a truth no one heretofore has dared speak to her: She’s just a tourist in his world. “You’re hiding out. You’re marking time, you’re mixing it up, you’re putting it all back together so that it makes sense to you.”

“Why aren’t things the way they’re supposed to be?” she asks, tears streaming from her eyes.

“They are. For us, they are,” he says. “You belong out there. You got your stuff to do.”

There’s more to the story, of course, but I’ll sidestep the specifics and instead return to that Monday night in May 1981, when I was 15. The movie spoke to every teenager who tuned in, I’m sure, as the lot of us yearned to shake off the parental shackles and make our own ways in the world. (What it demonstrates, however, is that freedom’s not another word for nothing left to lose, but synonymous with responsibility.) It also earned praise from most TV critics, as the Los Angeles Times review to the right shows, though Bitter Harvest—the equally acclaimed NBC-made TV movie opposite it—bested it in the ratings. (In the Philly area, Bitter Harvest was bumped by an old movie for reasons unknown to everyone but the Channel 3 station manager.)

Watching Freedom now, I recognize the troubling aspects of the film that I (and every TV critic) missed the first go-round. Yet Mare Winningham—in one of her first starring roles—is simply terrific as Libby, turning what could have been a caricature into a flesh-and-blood person, while Jennifer Warren adds welcome depth to the mother, and Peter Horton turns Bill into a carnie wiser than his years. The soundtrack, too, is excellent. It’s a worthwhile watch, in other words—and, best of all, one’s free to do so via YouTube. So if you have 100 minutes to kill, give it a go.

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