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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lifetime’s latest movie, “The Secret Life of Zoey,” is a cautionary tale about teen drug abuse. It didn’t start that way. Originally, the drama, premiering Monday, was strictly intended to be about divorce.

“I always thought how rotten it was for kids to have to go through divorce,” says executive producer Patricia Clifford, who has been happily married “for a long time.” Her 17-year-old daughter often told her of friends who had a rough time coping with being shuttled from one parent’s home to the other’s.

But when one of those conversations veered into the realm of drugs and how common it was for teens to take prescription medicines from their parents’ bathrooms, Clifford shifted the movie’s focus.

“They are swapping them at school and selling them at parties,” Clifford says. “Ritalin was a huge favorite. It would keep them up at night while they were doing homework.”

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And the parents, she says, are more often than not oblivious to their kids’ drug abuse because the constant moving between homes makes it difficult to keep track of them.

In the drama, Zoey (Julia Whelan) follows the pattern of being deceitful to her parents. A bright, studious 16-year-old, she is nevertheless angry and pained by their divorce. Her mother, Marcia (Mia Farrow), is working part time as a receptionist at a beauty salon and is looking for a full-time job. Marcia is taking antidepressants to cope with the situation and anti-inflammatory medication to ease chronic neck pain; Zoey thus is able to get drugs from the medicine cabinet. She also raids the supply of painkillers belonging to her father (Cliff DeYoung)--all as a means to escape a less-than-perfect life.

Her problems get worse when a new boy at school (Michael Coristine) suggests she try Ecstasy and recommends shoplifting to pay for it. Eventually, of course, Zoey’s habit catches up with her and she is entered into the local hospital’s substance abuse program.

Though Farrow is the mother of 14 children, she didn’t take the film because of its subject matter. What drew her was its director, Robert Mandel. “He did a movie I really liked called ‘Independence Day,’ ” she says. That 1983 film, which starred Kathleen Quinlan and also featured DeYoung, dealt with spousal abuse.

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“I read the script and, in his hands, I thought it had a shot. It was not an uninteresting story, and I was right to work with him. I did have a terrific time.” But Farrow admits she hasn’t seen the final project and probably won’t. The 57-year-old actress never watches herself on screen: “It’s not fun.”

She says none of her brood has had a drug problem. “My 17-year-old daughter is still talking to me and is an angel, but I know it can get really hairy,” she says. “I was a handful as a teenager.” In fact, Farrow was barely out of her teens when she married Frank Sinatra, who was 30 years her senior.

One thing is for certain: Farrow never talked back to her parents--the late director John Farrow and actress Maureen O’Sullivan--the way Zoey does to hers in the movie. “I was afraid of my father until the day he died,” Farrow admits. “While I wasn’t afraid of my mother, I never said a disrespectful word to her in my whole life.”

Though the film primarily deals with teens and drugs, it also shines the spotlight on the problems middle-age women have when they find themselves suddenly divorced and entering the workforce.

“I have friends who are in a similar position,” Farrow says. “You give up your career and you raise a child and everyone acknowledges and respects that, and suddenly the child is 16 and the husband leaves for a younger woman and it is hard to pull a life together. You have a very difficult young woman in the house and the husband is gone and you have to pull together a career out of thin air. You have to be resourceful.”

“The Secret Life of Zoey” can be seen Monday at 9 p.m. on Lifetime. The network has rated it TV-14-L (may not be appropriate for viewers younger than 14, with an advisory for language).


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