The film follows the title character, Dawn Wetherby (Plumb), as she runs away from her suburban home to Hollywood, California. She meets two friends along the way, Frankie Lee (Marguerite Delain), a prostitute who saves her from being robbed and seems to live a glamorous lifestyle, and Alexander Duncan (McCloskey), an artist and supposed liquor store employee. Alex invites her to stay at his apartment and the two become close friends and eventually start falling in love. Dawn feels guilty that Alex is supporting her, and is somewhat envious of Frankie Leigh, so she decides to meet with Frankie's pimp, Swan (Bo Hopkins). Alex tries to convince Dawn to quit multiple times, but Dawn enjoys the money she is now making. One night she gets a phone call for Alex and learns there is no liquor store and that he also works as a prostitute. When Swan spots Alex talking with Dawn one night as she is working, he tells her he has to leave him or he will have him killed.
A sequel, Alexander: the Other Side of Dawn, came out a year later, focusing on Alex and giving his backstory. In this film we see Alex was kicked out by his father and unable to obtain a job due to only being 15 years old. He meets a man who offers to take him in, who turns out to be a pimp. Alex reluctantly becomes a prostitute in order to survive. He winds up homeless, trying to get away from his pimp, and meets a famous football star named Chuck. Chuck offers to pay Alex to model for photographs and be his companion. Alex agrees but soon finds himself in over his head.
Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway and Alexander: the Other Side of Dawn contain examples of:
- An Aesop: One of the main goals of the film and it's follow up was to teach teenagers the dangers of running away from home.
- All Men Are Perverts: Alex actually seems to have this attitude. Somewhat justifiable given his backstory.
- All Abusers Are Male: Subverted in the second film. Just as many older women as men are willing to take advantage of a homeless 15-year-old.
- Break His Heart to Save Him: Dawn lies to Alex saying she only used him for money, to keep Swan from killing him.
- Compensated Dating: Alex begins this kind of agreement with Chuck, a wealthy football star in his late 30's.
- Disappeared Dad: Dawn never knew her father, or even his identity, which is part of the reason she decides to run away.
- Disposable Sex Worker: Dawn's friends Frankie Leigh and Susie Grey are murdered offscreen
- Dirty Old Man: Swan, though he seems more interested in using sexual harassment as a means of control over Dawn rather then any actual interest in her. In the second film, we have Chuck; a closeted football player who seems exclusively interested in underage boys.
- Distressed Dude: Alex is put in danger multiple times because of Dawn, and winds up being nearly beaten to death by some of Swan's thugs.
- Domestic Abuser: Chuck to Alex. He's not physically abusive, but he does use guilt to manipulate him, and callously puts him in unsafe situations.
- Gay Aesop: The character Gary pretty much only exists to show Alex that not all gay people are the men who take advantage of him.
- Gayngst: The teens at the Gay Community Services Centre.
- Have You Tried Not Being a Monster?: A gay teenager tells Alex and the others a long drawn out story about how he wished his father could accept him for who he is, Alex's response is; "you could at least try and make him happy."
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Dawn, mainly due to her devotion to her boyfriend, Alex, who also qualifies for this trope.
- High-School Dance: Dawn sneaks out to one at the beginning of the film, when she was supposed to be babysitting.
- Idealized Sex: When Dawn and Alex are actually doing it together, it's apparently amazing.
- It's Not You, It's My Enemies: Dawn rejects Alex's proposal to be more than friends because she knows her pimp, Swan, will have him killed. Swan tries to do this anyways just so he can get Dawn to move in with him and further control her.
- Lie Back and Think of England: How Dawn describes her first time. In the second film, Alex is talking with Dawn and discusses how he knows how she has to turn her brain off when she's with a John to try and get through it, though it's obvious he's really talking about himself.
- Mrs. Robinson: Alex's friend sets him up on a date with a much older woman, and he thinks they really hit it off. He is horrified the next morning though when she pays him, having made arrangements with his friend who turns out to be a pimp.
- Nice Guy: Alex, towards Dawn, Always. In his personal life he's a little more snarky and jaded.
- Police Brutality: A theme in the second film. Mainly, how the male hustlers are treated as criminal scum despite being underage.
- Rape as Backstory: Hinted at with Alex in the first movie.
- Rape as Drama: Dawn is raped by her first John.
- Reformed Criminal: Alex tries to be this, but nobody will give him a legitimate job and he finds himself constantly forced back out on to the streets.
- STD Immunity: Of all the dangers of prostitution that are shown in the film, disease and infection is noticeably absent.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Averted. Alex prefers Dawn's more plain-Jane look.