by Emily Eakin, published on April 7, 2003|
Liz Murray's mother was schizophrenic, alcoholic and legally blind. Both her parents were drug addicts who spent their welfare checks on cocaine. She was 10 when she learned that her mother had AIDS. At 13 she was living in a group home. By 15 she was on the street.
But after Ms. Murray saw her mother's coffin being lowered into a pauper's grave, her life took an improbable upward turn. A homeless teenager from the Bronx who had rarely set foot in a classroom, she completed high school in two years, won a college scholarship from The New York Times and was accepted at Harvard -- all while spending her nights on the B train.
That was four years ago. Since then Ms. Murray and her remarkable story have been making the public rounds. She has appeared on talk shows, signed a book contract with Hyperion and embarked on a career as a motivational speaker. Now, with ''Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story,'' tonight on Lifetime, her saga makes the inevitable leap to film.
The result is a bland, modestly affecting exercise in moral uplift, a two-hour testament to pluck, perseverance and the formidable allure of the Ivy League. Though it features a competent cast -- including the appealing Jennifer Pisana as a sensitive young Liz, baby-faced Thora Birch as her matter-of-fact teenage self and Kelly Lynch as her loving but hopelessly damaged mother -- the film is less interested in its idiosyncratic characters than in the moral lessons they represent. Its guiding spirit is not Charles Dickens but Horatio Alger.
Ultimately Ms. Murray's life is more complicated -- and more interesting -- than the morality-play conceit of ''Homeless to Harvard'': in the film's final frame, we learn that she left Harvard this spring without completing her degree.
But in this upbeat treatment, Ms. Murray's grim childhood becomes invaluable preparation for the even grimmer world of cruel teenagers, indifferent social workers and cutthroat academic competition.
The Murrays' Bronx apartment is a mess. There is filthy water in the tub and nothing to eat. Early on we watch young Liz (Ms. Pisana) daintily pluck half a doughnut from a trash bin and, later, eat cereal with a spoon her parents use for cocaine. Her mother has a psychotic episode and gets carted off to a mental hospital.
These scenes pass briskly. There is no wallowing in hunger, madness or the daily struggle for survival; Liz is destined for loftier things. Toward that end, the film manages to give her chaotic home life a positive spin: she has a resourcefulness and stoicism that her more fortunate peers apparently lack.
When she wanders into class for the first time in weeks, she is the picture of abjection. Her ponytail is matted, her face is smudged with dirt and the other students wrinkle their noses in disgust at her smell as she passes. Yet she aces the test in class that day, scoring 100 percent. When her incredulous teacher confronts her, she looks apologetically at her feet. ''I read a lot,'' she mumbles, chalking up her performance to a set of encyclopedias her upstairs neighbor retrieved from the trash.
By the last part of the film, when Liz wins a place on a high school field trip to Cambridge, Mass., for top students and takes her first awed steps on the Harvard campus, she has pulled off a number of such impressive academic feats, all with the same modest aplomb. She has also survived the casual sadism of a group home for girls, her mother's slow death from AIDS and years on the street with her intellect and -- more miraculously -- her will intact.
''I know there is a world out there that is better developed,'' she tells the high school teacher who becomes her mentor. ''I want to live in it.''
By this point the film's message is also resoundingly clear: success is not the prerogative of the rich, coddled or well-fed, but a basic right of the determined.
That is a worthy and attractive idea, one deeply embedded in American national mythology. But ''Homeless to Harvard'' insists on it at its heroine's expense. In the effort to extract universal meaning from her achievements, the film risks turning Ms. Murray's extraordinary story into a more conventional tale of triumph over adversity. It is abetted in this process by a lackluster script that reduces Ms. Birch's narration to platitudes like: ''People die. Things decay. Everything that seems so solid is meaningless.''
In a telephone interview last week, Ms. Murray, who served as a consultant on the film, said that she had left Harvard to be closer to her surviving family, including her father, who lives in the Bronx and has AIDS. Speaking from NBC Studios in Manhattan, where she was taping an appearance on ''The John Walsh Show,'' she said that after spending a year and a half at Harvard, she had concluded that it ''wasn't a good fit.''
''In New York my life was moving at such a fast pace,'' she said. ''Then I went to Harvard and everything was quiet. I realized my mom died, I lost my family, I was homeless. It all kind of caught up with me.''
Now 22, Ms. Murray said that she planned to finish college, but not at Harvard.
Robert Mitchell, director of communications for the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard, confirmed that Ms. Murray is no longer a student there. He offered no details.