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Warner Home Video presents
Homeless to Harvard : The Liz Murray Story (2003)

"I need a chance to climb out of this place I was born in."
- Liz Murray (Thora Birch)

Review By: Rich Rosell   
Published: December 17, 2004

Stars: Thora Birch
Other Stars: Jennifer Pisana, Ellen Page, Kelly Lynch, Robert Bockstael, Michael Riley, Makyla Smith
Director: Peter Levin

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:30m:14s
Release Date: September 07, 2004
UPC: 012569447424
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B-C+B- C+

DVD Review

The title kind of gives any modicum of suspense away, but the true story of Liz Murray, who pulled herself out of what was apparently an abysmal, drug-filled home life and went from living on the streets to attending Harvard, is nothing if not remarkable and inspiring. This made-for-cable version of her life, starring Thora Birch as a teenaged Murray, has the challenge of condensing Murray's whole life down to just 90 minutes, and in doing so invariably lends a typical layer of too-much-too-fast in the storytelling department.

It's a shame to short change the Murray like that, because her story is rather compelling. But anytime I watch a made-for-television movie based on a true story, my cynical blinders automatically pop up and I spend the whole time wondering what was made up using dramatic license, and what is the actual truth. I have no way to really know for sure with Homeless To Harvard: The Liz Murray Story, but I do know she's made the talk show rounds, so maybe you already know a whole lot more about her life than me.

In this Peter Levin-directed rendition, we first meet a 13-year-old Liz (played with natural ease by Jennifer Pisana), living in a filthy, cramped apartment with her older sister, and the added burden of a schizophrenic/druggie mom (Kelly Lynch) and brainy but drugged-addicted dad (Michael Riley). It's the kind of household where the mom regularly knocks her kids around trying to scare up some drug money, and where the family has to stand on an overturned bucket in the bathtub to shower because the tub is filled with dark, putrid water. Liz skips a lot of school, and though she's a smart kid, she can't avoid being pulled into the system, and she ends up a ward of the state, living in a violent teenage "group home".

By the time Birch takes over the role from Pisana, Liz has taken to living on the streets, struggling to distance herself from her long gone mom and her stoner dad, and she takes part in an alternative type of high school program. This all leads to the inevitable chance to try and win a scholarship to Harvard from The New York Times, again something the title of this one pretty much telegraphs before the first credit rolls by.

Birch delivers another strong, underrated performance as Murray, and she's the kind of talented actress that can make sullen and moody look natural without seeming forced. I'll admit I got drawn into the dramatic machinations story—yes, a Lifetime movie dragged me into its web—thanks in part to Birch's performance, even if some of the secondary plotlines were filled with a few too many somber platitudes for my liking.

I applaud the real Liz Murray, though there is an odd coda at the end of the film that begs for more detail, but I sense it would tarnish the message that had come before.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in its original 1.33:1 fullframe, Homeless To Harvard has a moderately tolerable picture that is occasionally good, but more often mediocre. Fleshtones often take on slightly red hues, and the overall picture quality and detail is somewhat dull. While I understand the subject matter is meant to be a little on the down side, the presentation issues seem to be more transfer-related than any type of directorial intent.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is provided in 2.0 surround, and the presentation is adequate, if unremarkable. Dialogue is clear and discernible, with a bit of directional imaging here and there, but by and large a staid mix. Not necessarily a bad thing, just very, very ordinary.

A Spanish language 2.0 track is also included.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Extras consist an Interview with Liz Murray (07m:10s), where the real life Murray does a seven minute rehash of her life story. It is interesting to put a face to the name, though after just watching her life story I didn't feel the need to hear more, other than the curiosity factor to see what she looked like. There is also a blink-and-you-miss-it Inspirational Message From Liz Murray (:22s) that was apparently used as a bumper during this film's run on Lifetime.

The disc is cut into 23 chapters, with optional subtitles in English and Spanish.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Yes, I know that I shouldn't like a Lifetime movie, but the story of Liz Murray is an interesting and positive one. Couple that with Thora Birch, an actress that I've generally enjoyed (the stoned listlessness of Dungeons and Dragons notwithstanding), and before you know it I was sucked along on Murray's rags to Harvard journey.

It's manipulative and maybe a tad too pat in its presentation, but Birch does a fine job in the role.


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