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When Innocence Is Lost (1997) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

erica molly scott rights

Principal social theme: women’s rights

Hearst Entertainment. PG rating. Featuring: Keri Russell, Jill Clayburgh, Roberta Maxwell, Vincent Corazza, Charlotte Sullivan, Deborah Grover, Alan Jordan, Shelley Thompson, Kris Holdenreid, Barry Flatman, Jonathan Potts, Dabe Nichols, Julie Khaner, John Bourgeois, Neil Dainard. Written by Deborah Jones. Cinematography by Laszlo George. Edited by Michael S. Murphy. Music by Dennis McCarthy. Produced by Sandra Saxson Brice. Directed by Bethany Rooney. Color. 92 minutes.


When Innocence Is Lost is a telefilm by Hearst Entertainment, which specializes in small-budget social issue films made directly for cable stations such as Lifetime and USA. They are often based on true-life events, although the personal background of the characters is frequently fictionalized. When Innocence Is Lost is considered one of their best efforts, covering the case in which a single college student lost custody of her daughter to the family of the father. The key issue was the young woman’s use of day care. The judge felt the child would be better cared for by the father’s parents instead of “strangers,” sparking a controversial battle over a woman’s right to raise her own child and receive an education.


Erica French (Keri Russell) is a high school student who gives birth to a baby girl. Her divorced parents, Susan and Matt, and the parents of the father, Scott Stone (Vincent Corazza), another student, have persuaded Erica to give the child up for adoption. After Erica sees the baby, she changes her mind and decides to raise the child herself. She names her Molly and brings her home. Erica finishes her senior year, graduating as the top student. Meanwhile, her mother (Jill Clayburgh) and her younger sister help Erica take care of the baby. The young father never sees Molly until his family runs into Erica at the local mall. Scott becomes enchanted with the baby and starts paying regular visits. He refuses, however, to offer any financial support. Molly sues Scott for support and is awarded a payment of $12 a week by the court, but Scott is also granted visitation rights three days a week.

Erica is offered a scholarship at Cornell University, fifty miles from her hometown. She plans to have Molly live with her on campus, and place Molly in a nearby daycare facility while she attends class. Scott is angry when he hears these plans, believing that he and his parents should take care of Molly. He sues for total custody, attempting to build a case that Erica is an unfit mother. The court battle becomes contentious, and the judge eventually rules in favor of Scott and the Stone family, since he believes Molly would be better cared for by blood relatives rather than strangers. Women’s groups are enraged at the verdict, and Erica approaches a prestigious attorney whom she hears talking about the case on television. The women’s rights expert agrees to file her appeal, and the case becomes a nationwide rallying point. The appeals court overturns the original ruling, stating that Erica’s reliance on day care cannot be held against her, and Erica retains custody of Molly. After a celebratory conclusion with Molly’s friends and family, a voiceover epilogue reveals that a subsequent court three years later required Molly to live in the same city as her father to accommodate his part-time custodial rights, forcing Erica to leave college.


When Innocence Is Lost provides an unusually thoughtful presentation of a complicated and controversial social issue that touches many bases, the legal ramifications of single parenthood, the rights of parents, and a woman’s right to complete education. The film is ideal to stimulate debate and discussion among viewers over many points. Without being heavy-handed, the screenplay continually contrasts the treatment of the sexes. In court, Scott is treated almost gingerly by Erica’s male attorney, but Scott’s female attorney attacks Erica with no holds barred. Earlier in the story, Scott twice physically assaulted Erica, but this is never brought up at the trial. Neither is the fact that Scott is continually late in paying his $12 a week child support for Molly. Erica, however, is berated because Molly had a playground accident, even though she was on the scene to help. The male judge in the case seems to have no appreciation or respect for the birth mother’s rights. Matt, Erica’s own father, seems absent for most of the proceedings, making only a token appearance after her case is won. This is not to say that there are no positive male role models in the film. Dave, Susan’s companion, and Kevin, Erica’s college boyfriend, are both supportive and helpful.

When Innocence Is Lost can be seen as providing a few mixed messages, given the consequences of a series of decisions by Erica, such as not having an abortion, not giving the baby up for adoption, trying to involve the father in raising Molly, and wanting to complete her education. Erica tries to be responsible at each step, but encounters nothing but opposition and heartache. The only positive factor is Molly, a beautiful, intelligent child to whom she is completely devoted. In these terms, each of Erica’s alternate choices would have been the easier path. Society neither recognizes nor rewards her efforts, and the legal system seems to work against her, not only trampling on her rights, but also penalizing her for wanting to finish her education. The judge, for example, prefers the Scott’s lifestyle. He has no further educational goals, as opposed to Erica who wants to become a lawyer. Which parent could provide a more financially secure future? The epilogue does not explain if the same judge handled the case three years later, which awarded Scott joint custody and required Erica to live in the same city as Scott. This ruling also seems unjust, forcing Erica to withdraw from college. In essence, this is another violation of her rights, justifying Scott’s pronouncement that one cannot be both a mother and a full-time student. Yet, the inverse of this premise, that one could not be both a father and a full-time student, would be dismissed as a ridiculous concept.

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about 7 years ago

As of this date 10-03-2010 what is Erica French and Mollys situation.