In Focus is our chance to look a little closer at some of our favorite films. This edition of In Focus highlights our film of the month, the seriously underrated gem Smooth Talk (1985). If you have time, check out our recent Pause It for the film too!
Smooth Talk is what happens when charming coming-of-age story meets disturbing psychological horror. As Connie and her friends explore their first high school summer, they find themselves in an exhilarating but uncomfortable introduction to womanhood. It’s a film about balancing (or being stuck) between two walks of life: girlhood and womanhood, family and independence, adventurous rebellion and awkward vulnerability, angsty defiance and fragility.
There’s a career-establishing turn from Laura Dern, an unshakable Treat Williams performance, and a directorial confidence that makes one wish Joyce Chopra had found a larger audience. The constant background hum of cicadas and locusts establish the perfect nostalgia for this coming-of-age story to play out against.
“I look right in your eyes, and all I see are a bunch of trashy daydreams.”
“What do we do now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Isn’t there like a system?”
“How should I know?”
“Well, you knew that guy.”
“I’m Arnold Friend and that’s my real name. That’s what I want to be to you, a friend.”
“You couldn’t ask for nobody better than me or more polite. I’m your lover, Connie.”
“You’re my what?”
“I’m your lover. You don’t know what that is, but you will.”
Laura Dern plays Connie. While Smooth Talk was not her feature film debut, it is arguably the movie that put her on the map. It is, after all, the film that brought her to the attention of David Lynch, her most important collaborator. The daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, her commitment to acting was proved at the age of 7 while shooting an uncredited role in Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: she had to retake a scene in which she ate an entire ice cream cone 19 times, which she did happily without complaint. Her ability to portray the curiosity and vulnerability that come with being a teenage girl singlehandedly carry the first half of the film.
Treat Williams pulls off a perfectly creepy performance as a predator with a James Dean twist, Arnold Friend. Getting his start acting in the musical theater world as the understudy for Danny Zuko in Broadway’s Grease, he found his cinematic breakthrough with Milos Forman’s Hair. His performance in Smooth Talk is so effective that some fans of the films find it difficult to not be unsettled by him in other films, even in his more charming roles.
Joyce Chopra directs. Before getting her start in the film world, she founded Club 47, the famous folk music club in Cambridge, MA. Her first directorial efforts were documentaries, including her lauded autobiographical doc Joyce at 34. Her transition into narrative film began when she met the writer Tom Cole, who wrote the screenplay for Smooth Talk. Smooth Talk was her first narrative feature, and it remains perhaps her best-remembered film, although the amount of directorial skill shown in it makes us wish her body of work was better known
Smooth Talk also features performances from Mary Kay Place (Being John Malkovich), Margaret Welsh (Mr. & Mrs. Bridge), and William Ragsdale (Fright Night).
The script is based on the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates. Even though Chopra took a lot of liberties with the source material, author Oates still wholeheartedly endorses the film.
DID YOU KNOW?
Inspirations for Joyce Carol Oates’s story were the Charles Schmidt/Pied Piper of Tucson murders as well as Bob Dylan’s song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
The predatory Arnold Friend has three numbers painted onto the back of his car: 33, 19, and 17. These numbers are never explained, but critics have speculated that they could be anything from bible verses to ages of him and his victims.
At the 1986 Sundance Film Festival (then called the U.S. Film Festival, it took home the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature.
WHAT DID THE CRITICS SAY?
“Smooth Talk is not a ‘teenage movie.’ It is not, despite its plot, a horror film. It is a study in deviant psychology, and in the power that one person can have over another, especially if one pushes in the direction where the other person is already headed” — Roger Ebert in his 3.5 star review, Chicago Sun-Times
“Representing Connie’s rebelliousness and confusion, the movie is controversial on a number of levels, not least because it leads to trauma but ends with neither unraveling nor punishment. Instead, it explores the utter thrill, pain, scariness, and sadness of sex, as a young girl experiences it.” — Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters
“Joyce Chopra’s independent feature plays uncomfortably like two movies jammed into one: the first is a slow, exaggeratedly naturalistic portrait of teenage alienation in the shopping mall culture of California, the second is a violent, stylized gothic shocker.” — Dave Kehr, The Reader
“Director Joyce Chopra clearly has no problem with allowing the story to unfold at an extraordinarily deliberate pace, using the film’s first hour to establish Connie’s tumultuous existence.” — David Nusair, Reel Film Reviews
Smooth Talk is available on DVD and Blu-ray and from Olive Films.
March 24, 2017