In a year where female directed films have been in the spotlight, particularly through the lens of reviewer Marya Gates and her Year With Women (full disclosure, I know Marya….she’s awesome!), when a studio releases an underrated female directed film on Blu-ray, it’s worth its own article. Director Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk, an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ 1966 short story, presents a hazy, allegorical illustration of female sexuality and ennui that, while never truly settling on whether it’s a cautionary tale or not, settles deeply in the mind and refuses to let go.
Connie (Laura Dern) is a high school sophomore who spends her days at mall when she’s not filling her head with “trashy daydreams” to consternation of her mother (Mary Kay Place). Connie’s flirtations threaten to be her undoing when a mysterious man (Treat Williams) arrives on her doorstep.
Oates’ 1966 story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is an oft-anthologized tale of female independence and sexuality which director Chopra translates as faithfully as she can. Much like the heroines of films like The Virgin Suicides and, more recently, Mustang, Connie seeks independence and a sudden transition from child to adult without knowing of the implications in becoming mature.
At home she’s belittled by her mother for her selfishness and self-absorption, particularly when compared to her homely, more responsible older sister June (Elizabeth Berridge). Yet Connie fails to make things easier on herself, ignoring her mother’s continued pleas for help around the house, and dressing up in little girl nightgowns and generally acting like a teenager. Connie remains on the liminal threshold in her house – too young to be treated as an independent adult, but too old to be so immature.
The only place she finds true solace is at the mall with her friends. In an expertly crafted sequence we watch Connie and her friends transition from childhood to their ideal version of adulthood that any woman can relate to. They start cinching their clothes to make them tighter, tease their hair, liberally put on makeup, creating a disguise and an alternate persona in the hopes of being appealing to the opposite sex. Interestingly, the girls don’t just seek male approval; they’re in control of what they want. They use the mall as their hunting ground, assessing young men with a jeweler’s eye, only the best will do. In this safe space the girls can be flirtatious, and when men get too aggressive they can simply say their mother’s waiting for them and run off.
But the mall can only sate for so long and much like a high, Connie looks for bigger and better thrills. This leads her to visiting a roadside restaurant where her mettle is tested further. When she finally gets the opportunity for sex, she freezes, terrified of feeling “so excited” by it all. For her, sex has to be on her terms and yet, due to inexperience and possibly a lack of knowledge, she can’t reconcile her feelings. Much like her appearance in the mall, she idealizes and fantasizes about a situation she doesn’t know anything about when it practice.
None of this depth works without Laura Dern’s luminous performance as Connie. Eighteen playing fifteen might be a stretch, but Dern conveys all of this, vacillating between toned down and quiet when at home and flamboyant when out. Dern, Place, and Berridge create a tribe of women (also including Margaret Welsh and Sara Inglis in smaller roles as Connie’s friends) that are all navigating what’s right and proper for them. Place’s Katherine simply wants to teach her daughter to not be a selfish, naive young woman who mistakes her looks for maturity. She’s a mother who wants her daughter to fall back on something besides her looks, yet pushes her child away through harsh comparisons with her eldest daughter.
As the eldest in my family, I connected best to the smaller role of June. June does the right things, but there’s a feeling that she’s stunted her life by staying close to home and living a rather mundane existence. Sure, to Connie June isn’t pretty and thus that’s why her life is sad, but there’s more to it. When Katherine up and slaps Connie, June reacts as a sister. She tries to explain to Connie, both as a sister and a mature adult, how the world works and when Connie responds poorly June reacts like a sister would; “you can be such a bitch.”
Everything comes to head when Arnold Friend arrives. Taking on near Biblical significance – there are many essays on the subject – Connie gets the opportunity to get everything she’s hoped for, yet fears the ramifications and the man doing the asking. Connie is tested by the Devil in a pair of tight Levis and her answer will determine the rest of her life.
As the only male actor of significance in the film, Treat Williams cuts a wide swath as the mysterious Arnold Friend. Based on serial killer Charles Schmid, there movie never presents Arnold as outright terrifying. Sure, he ominously tells Connie at the diner that he’s been “watching her.” And even after he finds where she lives, starts reciting pertinent facts about her, and refuses to leave he isn’t the drooling, knife-wielding rapist of our nightmares, another bit of disguise the film plays with. We accept Williams as a non-threat because he’s attractive and not forceful; we’re seduced by his “smooth talk” of the title. But as he slowly inches closer to the door, all the while his friend in the car threatens to cut the phone line, Connie becomes more fearful.
The film, unfortunately, cuts out the film’s bleak ending in favor of something far more ambiguous and tragic. Audiences can interpret Connie’s final moments with her family as a dream, possibly a dying image of harmony and absolution, or they can accept it as its literally presented. In that case, when Connie confesses to an assault by Friend, only to recant when her sister appears skeptical, the real-life implications are what stick. Whether Connie is alive or dead at story’s end something is irreparably ruined inside her, and society will blame her, in one form or another.
Olive Films’ recent Blu-ray release gives this thirty-year-old underrated think piece new life. Dern and the rest of the cast are wonderful, and the movie dreamily presents a world both idealized and all too real.