Fox is selling "The Price of Love" as a daring and socially responsible look at the world of teen runaways and male prostitution in Hollywood.
Truth-in-advertising check: It is neither.
But the made-for-television film, which airs at 8 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45), is one worth watching and thinking and talking about, especially for parents of teen-agers.
One not-so-complicated reason to watch is that you are going to see a guaranteed future star making his network film debut in the person of Peter Facinelli, who plays a 16-year-old runaway named Bret. Facinelli looks like a young Tom Cruise without the hint of mischief. With Facinelli, it is all good looks and naivete.
Innocence lost is what his Bret character is supposed to be all about. We get only Bret's side of the story in "The Price of Love." But, according to Bret, his stepmother abused him and his father stood idly by when the wicked woman threw him out.
And, so, after a short stint of living with a pack of panhandling runaways in Hollywood, Bret ultimately winds up on a seedy stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard as an oh-so-sympathetic male hustler.
Between Bret and Beau (Jay Ferguson), a more experienced male hustler who takes Bret in, the producers are trying to give us a modern-day, West Coast version of "Midnight Cowboy." But AIDS did not exist in America circa 1969, when that film was released. The life-and-death consequences of AIDS changes the equation of social responsibility for filmmakers dealing with matters of sexuality today -- especially when their work is presented on a network geared to teen viewers.
"The Price of Love" is maddeningly irresponsible in the way it virtually ignores AIDS, despite its focus on a subculture near Ground Zero when it comes to contracting and transmitting the disease. In the film, Bret is shown getting in cars with at least three older men to have sexual relations as a prostitute. Furthermore, he is shown sleeping with a female runaway, Roxann (Laurel Holloman), whom he professes to truly love.
The only time we hear anything suggesting the potentially fatal consequences of such behavior comes when Beau chides Bret for going out on the boulevard to turn his first trick without talking to him. "Why did you do it without talking to me first? There's stuff you gotta know about cops, safe sex. You could get yourself hurt," Beau says.
And, while Bret is soon busted by an undercover cop, there are never any health consequences for him or his sexual partners. Safe sex is never again mentioned, let alone explained.
That is even more troubling when you consider that the film airs at 8 p.m., when the greatest number of teens and pre-teens are watching. Fox, along with MTV, is more than just the favorite network of about 10 million adolescent viewers each night; it's a major player in defining what's cool to them.
That's the biggest reason parents ought to watch "The Price of Love" -- at least to fill in all the socially responsible details that the film leaves out in its needlessly greedy agenda of only entertaining and pandering to the sympathies of its teen audience.
"The Price of Love" is entertaining. The acting is worth the price of admission. In addition to Facinelli, Ferguson and Holloman, Alexis Cruz ( "Streets of Laredo") also turns in a fine performance.
Producer David Gerbner and Director David Burton Morris went the extra mile in terms of script and photography to make this look and feel like a feature film. As a result, Bret's journey into the empty, urban, neon nightmare of teen prostitution in Hollywood is compelling.
As drama, the "Fox Tuesday Night Movie" showcase is definitely improving. Now, if the Rupert Murdoch network would just care a little about having a social conscience