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Review: Smooth Talk Is an Uncannily Assured Look at Teenage Anxieties

Throughout, Joyce Chopra patiently and shrewdly observes the contradictions of human behavior that Laura Dern brilliantly conveys.

Smooth Talk
Photo: Janus Films

Like the Joyce Carol Oates story on which it’s based, Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk feels like it’s told in two distinct, and distinctive, halves: one a relatively tame coming-of-age drama, the other its warped, funhouse-mirror reflection. The 1985 film centers on Connie (Laura Dern), a 15-year-old living on a farm with her family in the Northern California suburbs. As flighty and self-absorbed as the average teenager, Connie whiles away her summer days thinking about boys and quarrelling with her conservative mother, Katherine (Mary Kay Place), who openly favors her older daughter, June (Elizabeth Berridge), and belittles Connie as lazy and a good-for-nothing. Naturally, Katherine’s overbearing, protective nature only exacerbates her child’s adolescent sense of rebellion, driving Connie to spend as little time at home as possible.

For much of the film’s first half, Chopra patiently observes the rituals by which the young attempt to forge an identity to present to both the world and themselves. Because this is America, and because this is the America of the mid-‘80s, consumerism is crucial to this process. Even without much in the way of actual pocket cash, Connie and her friends become different people while roaming stores. With their perfectly teased hair and trendy clothes, they look far more like stereotypical ‘80s kids at the mall than outside it. Even their body language changes depending on the setting: At home, Connie is awkward, as if unsure how to handle her gangly frame, but as she walks around casting flirtatious glances at boys and teasing retail workers, she exudes a veneer of confidence inspired by magazines and TV.

Even in Smooth Talk’s more escapist moments, however, Chopra calls attention to the pitfalls of such an approach to life. Plans and obligations are constantly disrupted by the allure of sex, and the filmmaker subtly incorporates the various perspectives of friends and relatives who have to deal with Connie’s flakiness when it comes to the possibilities of spending time with boys. Chopra homes in on how vast an age difference of even a year or two can seem when, for example, Connie’s friends want to go to a movie, only for the youngest among them to become exasperated when the others are willing to bail on the movie that she now wants to see due to their learning that a group of cute guys are seeing something else.

Throughout, Dern edges Connie’s endless flirtations with a certain nervousness, subtly conveying how Connie’s sexualized poses are so practiced, giving away the effort behind the girl’s insouciant back arches and hair flips with a look of concentration on her face. More than once, Connie’s bravado falters when she catches wind of just how intently some teenage boys and even men are gawking at her, and at times it feels as if Smooth Talk is a slasher movie waiting to erupt. One shot, of Connie calling home from a payphone in an empty mall parking lot in the dead of night, is downright terrifying as she realizes that something bad could happen to her for staying out by herself too late. It’s difficult to capture the perils of sexual awakening in young people without coming across as prudish, but Chopra never depicts her protagonist as either stupid or insensibly provocative, instead patiently and shrewdly observing the contradictions of human behavior that Dern conveys.

The vague sense of dread that permeates the film starts to boil over in the last act, after a petulant Connie decides to not go to a barbecue with her family and she’s visited by a man who calls himself Arnold Friend (Treat Williams). Oozing greaser allure and shortening his name to “A Friend,” Arnold at first interests Connie, who, at long last confronted with a boy giving her his undivided attention, is lured by his come-ons. Slowly, however, the mood shifts, with Arnold giving more and more details about Connie’s life that make obvious that he’s been spying on her, and his come-hither entreaties take on a dark, predatory dimension.

Chopra’s direction, comparatively matter-of-fact and tranquil up to this point, suddenly embraces the visual language of horror, employing angled shots and alternately placid and arrhythmic editing to emphasize the distance between the teenage Connie and the thirtysomething Arnold and how quickly it can be closed. Eventually, Connie retreats back into the house but remains near the screen door, leading to images of Arnold pressed against the mesh as Connie hides just off to the side of the door frame, suggesting a perversion of a Catholic confession. The sequence could pass as a riff on Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find as much as Oates’s harrowing short story, a confrontation with a cosmic sort of nihilism as much as the allegorical embodiment of men’s potential for danger.

Connie’s half-flippant, half-frightened approach to the possibilities of sex reaches an apotheosis that’s as anticlimactic as it is devastating, with the film leaving unseen and unsaid the denouement of her entrapment by Arnold while making clear that she’s been deeply rattled by it. As she would the following year in Blue Velvet, Dern nails the devastation of a woman learning how evil and exploitative the world of men can be, and just as David Lynch’s film ended on a note of society’s mask of civilized jollity reasserting itself in the face of deeper awareness, so, too, does Smooth Talk conclude with Connie, faced with no recourse to change anything, find a way to compartmentalize her rude awakening for the sake of survival.

Cast: Laura Dern, Treat Williams, Mary Kay Place, Elizabeth Berridge, Levon Helm, Margaret Welsh, Sarah Inglis Director: Joyce Chopra Screenwriter: Tom Cole Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 91 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1985 Buy: Video

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