This is a TV movie of the type which focuses on a current controversial topic- what I have come to think of as the "Issue of the Month" school of film-making. Films of this sort, often based or partly based upon a true story, frequently end up as rather worthy but dull, but "Too Young to Die?" is rather better than most.
In this case the Issue of the Month is the death penalty, especially the use of the death penalty in cases where the murder was committed by a minor. The central character, Amanda Sue Bradley, is a fifteen-year-old Oklahoma schoolgirl who finds herself on trial for her life after killing her lover Mike Medwicki. We learn of Amanda's troubled past in a series of flashbacks. She is the product of a poor, dysfunctional family from a trailer-park. At the age of thirteen she was sexually molested by her stepfather and entered into a very brief marriage with a boyfriend. (Did Oklahoma really still permit thirteen-year-olds to marry in the early nineties?) She ran away to the nearest big town where she became the lover of a petty crook named Billy Canton, who abused her, introduced her to drugs and forced her to work as a stripper.
Amanda appears to have been rescued from this predicament by the entry into her life of Mike, a divorced sergeant from a nearby army base. He takes Amanda back to live with him; at first he is more like a father-figure than a boyfriend and their relationship is platonic, but eventually she seduces him and ends up in his bed. Mike abandons her when the Army threaten him with a court-martial after discovering that he is in a sexual relationship with an underage girl. Amanda is forced to return to Billy, and together they plot revenge on Mike.
Juliette Lewis, only 17 when she made this film, was regarded as one of the rising young stars of the early nineties. She was to give good performances in later films such as "Cape Fear" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape", but "Too Young to Die?" must be one of her best. She was also to play a teenage murderer in another film made four years later, Oliver Stone's notorious "Natural Born Killers", but "Too Young to Die?" is a far better film than that nasty, meretricious piece of sledgehammer satire.
The purpose of the film is to force viewers to think about the ethics of the death penalty. The murder of Sergeant Medwicki was certainly both brutal and premeditated, but a system which allows a fifteen-year-old girl to be sentenced to death is itself equally brutal. Amanda is a confused, vulnerable girl, someone who has herself been a victim all her life. She is also lacking in intelligence and seems unable to comprehend what is happening to her; there is a telling scene where her lawyer comes to visit her in jail and all she is interested in is whether he has brought her any chocolates. Lewis is able to bring out all the conflicting elements of Amanda's personality, including a disturbing mixture of innocence and teenage sensuality.
The film also features a young actor who would later go on to become an even bigger star than Lewis. Although Brad Pitt is reasonably good here as the thuggish Canton, he is not in the same league as she is. The actor who shares the acting honours with Lewis is Michael Tucker as her lawyer Buddy. Although Buddy lacks experience in capital cases, he puts up a strong defence, including a moving closing speech, which inexplicably fails to convince the jury, who prefer the bloodthirsty rhetoric of the counsel for the prosecution.
The film ends with Amanda convicted of murder and awaiting execution. We never learn her ultimate fate, although Attina Cannady, the defendant in the trial on which this film was partially based, eventually had her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The film has received some criticism on this board for allegedly distorting the facts of the Cannady case, although it never claims to be a factual retelling of that case (which took place in Mississippi rather than Oklahoma). The film is rather a work of fiction, which draws upon the Cannady trial and other real-life cases. Although it was made as a TV movie, I found it a more effective and powerful contribution to the debate on capital punishment than several high-profile feature films on the same topic such as "Dead Man Walking". 7/10
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