Movie Madness and/or Mania: The Boy Who Drank Too Much (1980)

Shep Greene’s 40+ year old social-problem novel The Boy Who Drank Too Much remains one of the most searched-for titles on this site; judging by the search engine results I see on my end (“boy who drank too much main themes” “what is the rising action of the boy who drank too much” “boy who drank too much study guide”) it is because it is inexplicably being assigned to 21st century middle school students.

So sorry my fellow middle-school teachers if you’re getting book reports that refer to the anonymous narrator as “George”, that’s on me.

Or maybe I’m not sorry because you should be assigning better quality books with less child abuse and gay panic.

On the other hand, if they are referring to the main character as “Billy” it is because in this modern age the 1980 TV movie adaptation is available in full, and the most notable thing about it is that they bothered to give the main character a name.

If that is the case, I am genuinely sorry for any actual middle-schoolers who sat through the movie, because it is a real slog (and also spoilers the plot is very different from the book, so you’re not going to get away with it).

While YouTube’s description states that it aired as a CBS Wednesday Night Movie, it is actually announced at the beginning that it’s a special that is preempting the CBS Wednesday Night Movie, which seems like a lot of trouble for something so boring. FULL DISCLOURE: I had to break up my viewing into four separate sessions, because JEEZ CAN WE JUST GET ON WITH IT????

The start of the actual movie is preceded by a lengthy montage that summarizes the entire plot of the movie. Why are we even bothering then???

Set in a nameless, vaguely New Englandish city, high school sophomores Buff Saunders (a surprisingly runty-looking Scott Baio) and Billy Carpenter (Lance Kerwin, who looks like a younger, dopier Mark Hamill) are our familiar hockey-crazed protagonists. Billy has an aggressively normal family (what wacky recipe will Mom try next?) while Buff lives with his widowed alcoholic father (Don Murray, “Special Guest Star”) and has to forage for cold pizza in the morning, before giving up and buying snack cakes out of a vending machine in the lobby of the welfare hotel where they currently reside.

As in the book, Buff has his front teeth knocked out during the course of a hockey game and Coach orders Billy to walk him to the ER, and Billy hangs around to take him home, because nobody needs parental consent to do anything in 1980.

At home Buff argues with Drunk Dad, who punches him in his freshly-stitched face and Billy is like “Um, this is kinda a lot.”

Class Couple Art and Tina appear, and invite everyone to a party at Tina’s place, promising to get Buff a date with a girl who is really into toothless hockey players. As in the book, the party is a disaster, as Buff ignores his date to aggressively flirt with Tina, although the over-the-top latent homoeroticism is toned down (Can something be both over-the-top and latent? -ED)

In a notable change from the book, the evening climaxes not with Buff barfing all over Tina’s garage, but with him peeing all over her mom’s carpet.

There is a lot of youth hockey footage.

Sometime later Billy finds Buff literally in the gutter outside his house, and calls his neighbors for help, who all of sudden decide they DO need parental consent to take Buff to the hospital. They also call in a specialist in teenage alcoholism, who recommends an in-patient program for both Buff and his father in a neighboring city.

And this is where the plot wildly diverges from its source material (MIDDLE SCHOOLERS TAKE NOTE!)

Buff’s father refuses to commit to the 4 hour long nightly family therapy sessions, so Billy steps in to fill that role, commuting by bus an hour each way. His parents put in a token protest, but ultimately agree to this plan.

There is only one other teen in the program, so Billy is mostly surrounded by middle-aged drunks, glumly announcing himself each night as “Billy Carpenter, Temporary Co-Alcoholic.” His grades and hockey game suffers.

Buff remains surly and resistant to treatment, and one night Billy tells him off for being an ingrate. When Billy’s birthday rolls around, his mother plans an elaborate turkey dinner, and Billy decides just this once he’ll skip out on being Buff’s temporary co-alcoholic.

Heartbroken, Buff breaks out of rehab, and Billy goes to wait with Drunk Dad for him to turn up. When he doesn’t, Billy takes Drunk Dad to the local hockey rink, where somehow Buff broke in, turned on all the lights and put on a bunch of hockey gear. Father and son have a tearful reunion, revelations are made about the late Mrs. Saunders and Billy is relieved of his role of temporary co-alcoholic. The end?

Odds & Ends Department: The full version streaming on YouTube is a recording of the original broadcast, complete with commercials, which is usually an enjoyable bonus. NOT IN THIS CASE: this “special presentation” had a single sponsor, so all you get are dull and expensive-looking ads for Xerox products.

More interesting is the brief news bulletin at the beginning of the broadcast, updating viewer on John Wayne Gacy’s trial.

The one nice thing I can say about this adaptation is they went for realism: the glum-looking high school students wear flapping bell-bottom jeans and down jackets; filmed mainly in Madison, WI, the exteriors are confined mainly to grimy, semi-industrial parts of the city.

Availability: A VHS release in 1993 (WHY?), streaming free on YouTube, Archive.org  

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12 Responses to Movie Madness and/or Mania: The Boy Who Drank Too Much (1980)

  1. Good Lord, how can any teacher still be assigning this??? What horrible dreck!

  2. Anonymous says:

    They showed the movie in class back in the 80’s and the only part I remember is Scott Baio peeing because the entire class laughed. I can still remember the character Tina (thanks for reminding me of her name) exclaim that he went on her mother’s carpet. I don’t remember the exact quote but I remember her voice and tone. LOL

    • mondomolly says:

      As soon as I read this I could instantly imagine my high school’s wrestling coach/health teacher bellowing OKAY THAT’S ENOUGH NOW! at an entire class.

  3. When I was a high school media specialist about ten years ago, we only had a few copies of the VHS for the whole county. I had to make a request from the district office every time one of the teachers wanted to show it, which was twice a year (Life Management is a semester-long class). The last year I was there, someone decided we were the last school still using it and let our school just have the tape.

  4. Cee says:

    Oh God, I have to rewatch this even though I effing despise Scott Baio.

  5. Pingback: Movie Madness And/Or Mania: Summer of Fear [AKA Stranger In Our House] (1978) | Lost Classics of Teen Lit: 1939-1989

  6. Ronald Cerabona says:

    There seems to be a copy of the book readable at openlibrary.org – a free website with lots of YA books and much else besides.

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