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    Film pairs teen pop culture with a sobering message

    ©Associated Press
    October 10, 2002

    PINECREST -- Helen Marie Witty, 16, strapped on her inline skates one evening in June 2000 and told her parents she'd be right back. She was struck and killed by a drunken driver shortly after.

    Her image hovered on a large three-panel screen used to premiere IRL . . . in Real Life, a film and Web site launched Wednesday by Mothers Against Drunk Driving at Palmetto Senior High School, where the teen was a beloved honor student.

    The film is a brisk medley of movie clips, music videos, interviews and personal testimony about the havoc that underage drinking and drunk driving wreaks on young lives.

    The MTV-style film, narrated by singer Jaci Velasquez, uses music by Weezer, the Calling, Our Lady Peace and other groups -- as well as a fast succession of movie clips featuring Mel Gibson, Will Smith and Tom Hanks -- to absorb young viewers for whom pop culture is a potent guide.

    A stream of stories about teens coping with the lure of alcohol runs throughout the half-hour film.

    A remorseful Carla Wagner, now serving a six-year sentence for Helen Marie's death, appears giving a court-ordered speech at Palmetto High.

    "Do you know what it feels like to be a murderer?" asks Wagner. She urges students to remember her, shackled and handcuffed, the next time they think about getting behind the wheel drunk.

    Wagner was drinking and smoking pot before she struck Helen Marie.

    A home video captures Daniel Stevenson of Gansevoort, N.Y., as he smiles and jokes beside his girlfriend. Both are dressed up for the prom. Daniel, 17, died months later in November 2001 from alcohol poisoning after accepting a dare from friends to chug an entire bottle of vodka.

    Three men who grew up in an inner-city Newark neighborhood recall being snared by drugs as teenagers. The friends don white coats and stethoscopes on the film, evidence that they rose above their murky prospects to attend medical school and become doctors.

    But at the film's core is Helen's story.

    The dumbstruck father who couldn't recognize his daughter from a cop's Polaroid of a cut and mangled girl. The friends who describe an "amazingly happy" teen. The mother who remembers her straight-A daughter's dream of being on Broadway.

    "She would have graduated from here last May if somebody hadn't made the wrong choice," John Witty told reporters before the film. "She loved Miami. She would have done great things here."

    "We'd like to believe Helen didn't die in vain," principal Janet Hupp said before the presentation.

    Belinda Alfonso, 17, a senior at Palmetto High, called the film "a real good deal" but doubts drinking will lose its powerful appeal among the young. "It's such a problem I don't even think my friends view it as a problem," she said.

    Wendy Hamilton, president of MADD, said the film is meant to help teens sort through conflicting messages about drinking.

    "We continue to view this as a rite of passage," Hamilton said. "We continue to wink at underaged drinking."

    IRL . . . in Real Life, funded by Chevrolet, will travel to schools across Florida and the country.

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