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Tuned In: 'Harvard' captures teen's hard-knock life

Monday, April 07, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- This true tale of a teenager who went from "Homeless to Harvard" (9 tonight on Lifetime) has a happy ending, but it's not a happy story. It's barely uplifting because of the sullen visage of actress Thora Birch, who plays the real-life Liz Murray.

Young actress Jennifer Pisana, who plays Murray in the first 30 minutes of the movie, exudes sweetness and vulnerability. When Birch takes over the role, she exhibits a coldness that makes connecting with Murray difficult. There's a disquieting deadness in her eyes, which would be understandable given what Murray endures, but it's not true to the real-life Murray, who appeared at a Lifetime press conference in January.

"It's hard for me to compare and say that somebody [else is] having such an easy time of it," an upbeat Murray said of her teenage plight. "It's all relative really."

Regardless of casting missteps, there is value in Lifetime's incredible story, first recounted in a report on ABC's "20/20."

Written by Ronni Kern and directed by Peter Levin, "Homeless to Harvard" spares no amount of grit or grime in telling Murray's unfortunate life story.

Raised in New York by a super-intelligent but drug-addicted father, Liz lived in the kind of apartment local newscasters would dub "an apartment of filth." Liz loved her mother (Kelly Lynch) dearly -- an unconditional, almost unimaginable adoration given what her mother put her through.

"She was a drug addict, an alcoholic. She was legally blind. She was a schizophrenic," Liz says at the start of the movie. "But I never forgot that she loved me, ..."

Liz's life gets worse before it gets better, although, amazingly, it could be argued that her life improves when she becomes homeless. At least then she doesn't suffer the crushing blow of dashed expectations, a regular experience when she lived with her mother.

Running the streets with her homeless best friend, Chris, Murray would often ride the New York subway all night and then sleep in friends' homes during the day.

"You were completely dependent on other people. Always," she said at January's press conference. "I ended up having to abide by everybody else's schedules. ... It sounds really rough, but I had [Chris] with me most of the time, and that made it kind of an adventure."

Murray eventually enrolled in high school and won a scholarship to Harvard, although a coda at the end of the film puts a damper on the positive ending: Murray left Harvard this winter and plans to finish her education elsewhere.

Murray, who often speaks to groups of young people about her experience, said she emphasizes the need for personal responsibility. Despite her experiences, this is clearly not a woman who feels sorry for herself.

"In the end, you end up alone. Whatever it is that you're doing with your friends is not going to stick on you," she said at the January press conference. "It's not going to count at a job interview. Nothing, no excuse is going to manifest when you're trying to get something for yourself. It won't matter, so it's important to make do for yourself. Do whatever you can to make sure that you're taking advantage of the potential inside of you. If not, it's you that's going to be sorry in the long run."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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