Cruising Back to Adolescence
At the Movies
Directed by Joyce Chopra
At the USA Copley Place
A FRIEND DESCRIBED Smooth Talk as the story of a 15-year-old girl in the first flush of her sexuality, which seemed like a compelling enough reason to see it--having been there myself. The film also happens to be based on a Joyce Carol Oates novella, another point to recommend it; and, in spite of its low $1 million budget, Smooth Talk managed to garner the Grand Prize at the U.S. Film Festival. Not bad at all.
But most intriguing, in an era when women's hormonal reactions have been curiously represented on screen by male voyeurs like Fellini, Goddard and Malle, Smooth Talk is the product of female director Joyce Chopra, a 48-year-old documentary veteran making her feature-film debut.
High expectations aside, Smooth Talk is an enormously frustrating, painful movie to watch. Which is not to say that it is not ultimately likeable. Concerning itself with human flaws and the mistakes in judgment to which we've all fallen prey, we are tempted either to meld into the cellulose and stop the characters from acting as they do, or to walk out of the theatre in order to avoid bearing witness to such fatalistically dumb behavior. In summary, this is a movie that hits home very hard.
For the first part of the movie, you will wonder why Connie Wyatt (Laura Dern) is worthy of being the film's primary focus. She spends most of her time painting her toes, talking seductively to the bathroom mirror, and dressing up in skimpy clothes and excessive make-up to go manhunting at the local shopping mall. Connie is like any other teenage girl in heat, only she seems much more vapid and much less interesting. When Connie argues with her mother (Mary Kay Place) and refuses to help with the dishes or paint the house, she is nothing less than despicable. Connie is a suburban rebel without a cause--she is boy-craziness and giggles, meanness and anger, but not much intelligence.
But as the quintessential small-town girl, Connie is beautifully portrayed by Laura Dern. She's a shimmery blonde with the kind of natural, unfinished all-American good looks that an Eileen Ford talent scout would spot beneath all the pancake powder and lipstick. But Dern plays Connie as a girl who has not yet come into her own. She's tall and thin and leggy, but she walks with a knock-kneed self-conscious slouch. When she tries to be sexy, the worst of Valley Girl fashion comes out of the closet. Too much hairspray, too many jiggly bangles, plastic colorful earrings, a flairy mini-skirt and a push-up satin halter are the usual attire. All the sleazy guys at Frank's Hamburger Joint--which Connie and her friend prowl by night--think Connie is sexy, but even remembering what it was like to be 15, it's hard to understand why she'd want to hang out with those guys at all.
For anyone who remembers the phase of adolescence when you're trying so hard to be so grown up that you almost go too far, the early scenes of Smooth Talk are horribly real. With all her tacky adornments, Connie can only be asking for trouble.
And trouble comes soon enough. Enter the second, equally frustrating part of the movie. Treat Williams gives a brilliant performance as Arnold Friend, a wild older man who spots Connie at Frank's one night and makes her his marked woman. With a pathological desire equaled only by Norman Bates in Psycho, Arnold finds Connie alone in her house and invites her "to go for a ride with him." The look of confusion in Connie's eyes as Arnold delivers his request-cum-monologue--a look that says she wants to go with him but knows better than to do so. It's a centuries-old look--women, girls really, who should have said "no" but couldn't, who wanted love so much that they settled for sex. And it's a look that ought to leave the audience pondering the fine line between seduction and rape. Desire and fear become one and the same.
Of course, the movie does become infinitely more interesting when Arnold enters the scene. Before Arnold, Connie encounters all kinds of sleazes, but he's both her first, and her first psychotic. And as you watch Arnold smooth-talk the diffident Connie into submission, he seems like a sinister cross between Jack the Ripper and Huey Long.
To the director's credit, scenes that are normally graphically portrayed are merely subtly suggestive, and in many ways more chilling for their uncertainty. One could say that Smooth Talk is the sort of movie that everyone would like if he just let himself get into it. But it's also the sort of movie we want to resist--we'd rather not believe in Connie's naivete or Arnold's sangfroid, and we don't wish to remember that growing up was as difficult for us as it is for Connie. We only stop resisting when the surreal elements, like Arnold's maniacal unctuousness, take over. And when we submit, we're scared.