Susan Seidelman’s breakout 1982 debut, Smithereens, concerns a young dreamer who moves to the Big Apple in search of fame and acclaim, only to run up against…herself. It’s consistent with Seidelman’s punk approach that the background details of her fishnet-clad antiheroine, Wren (Susan Berman), are kept threadbare: She has a thick Jersey accent, a dead-end job at a copy center, a pissed-off landlady, and a too-easy charm. And shouldn’t that be enough? Despite, or perhaps, given an opening sequence that sees Wren slathering a subway stop with Xeroxes of her own face, she propels the story forward as a lead whose choices are entirely reactive, which is one of the supposedly fundamental no-nos of any formulaic screenwriting tutorial.
Locked out of her walk-up once and for all, Wren spends the majority of Smithereens ping-ponging between Paul (Brad Rinn), a young portrait artist from Montana who lives in a van lodged somewhere near the FDR, and Eric (Richard Hell of the Voidoids), a rising rock musician who’s both bemused and irritated with her shiftless shenanigans. On their first night together, Eric drunkenly passes out before they manage to have sex, giving a trace of mystery to his subsequent, affected cool. Is he actually developing a soft spot for Wren, or is she just another groupie? Wren gets the excitement she needs from him in contentious small doses, only to run back to Paul for reassurance after each inevitable blowout. If that sounds like heroine-shaming, consider the original tagline for the film: “She was a legend in her own mind…”
Berman’s performance is so acute that you can always see the gears of Wren’s mind turning, even when the character is at her most desultory; thanks in no small part to its cagey casting, this isn’t a film designed to glean sympathy points from its audience. For all the glamor ascribed to the “bad old days” of Koch-era New York in hindsight, Smithereens demonstrates an environment barren of facile slogans or manifestos—where dingy, marginal living is the cost of refusing bourgeois societal norms. Wren’s sole visit to the would-be “other side” arrives in a visit to her older sister, Terry (Pamela Speed), whose husband, Mike (Tom Cherwin), refuses to loan Wren some money, mocking her: “I guess you’ll just have to have a kid!” This reference to a pre-media-res abortion is the only one of its kind in Seidelman’s screenplay (co-written with Ron Nyswaner and Peter Askin), another strain of concurrent melancholy that the film barely takes the time to register while plowing ahead.
Shrewdly, Seidelman leaves it to the final moments for the viewer to decide whether 93 minutes spent cringing at one burnt bridge after another is enough “story” worth telling. While the film was fêted at Cannes, American critics dinged it for its less-than-likeable protagonist upon domestic release—and they were right. “I’m really rotten,” Wren tells Paul. “I’m really disgusting. When I was nine years old, Sister Theresa told me, ’Don’t let your mother know how bad you are—it’d kill her.’” On whether this is a moment of real vulnerability or a quicksilver exercise in excuse-making, the film hedges again. Wren is held hostage by a shapeshifting self-image, hopped up on visions of a brighter future one moment and blind with rage at her barren present at the next. The title comes from Eric’s punk band, which is on the cusp of a big breakthrough that, the film insinuates, couldn’t include Wren even if both he and she wanted it to. For this paralyzing vicariousness alone, Smithereens is as unsparing (and, as of 2016, accurate) a sketch of twentysomething life in New York City as American independent cinema has yet offered.