Smooth Talk (1985)

JOYCE CHOPRA

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

/USA, 1985. , , , . Screenplay by , based on the story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been by . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by , , .  Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Joyce Chopra adapts Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” with forceful, erotic potency in this coming of age tale. Laura Dern is superb as a rebellious teenager who, at fifteen, has reached the point of maturity where breaking free from the care of her hassled mother () has become a purely negative experience for both, her bad attitude and slovenly behaviour constantly compared to her more dutiful sister (, fresh off her performance in the Oscar-winning Amadeus). Dern has no interest in being helpful around the house and spends her free time on the beach or shopping with her two best girlfriends, her burgeoning hormones telling her to focus on doing whatever is necessary to generate male attention her way. When she notices that a local burger joint is a hopping scene for teens, she insists to her friends that they spend more time there, but after they hesitate to go she starts showing up there on her own. Dressed and made up to the max, she goes on a few drives and enjoys exploring the beginnings of her burgeoning sexuality, convinced that she has the entire operation under control except for one slightly perturbing factor. An older, confident and handsome gentleman (, his boy-next-door looks used perfectly to put across a kind of desirable menace) singles her out and tells her he’s got his eye on her, and their first encounter, shot like a sexy nightmare, is brushed quickly out of her mind. When Williams shows up at Dern’s house one evening, while her family has gone to a family barbeque that she refused to join, he woos her in a sequence that takes up the film’s final third and is where all the vague sexual energy that has been buzzing around our main character finds a sharp, threatening focus. At first trying to sweet-talk her into going for a ride, Williams’ attitude gets insistent in an almost invisible manner (at first, anyway) that avoids after-school movie cliches and instead clarifies for Dern’s character that the mating game that she, at the age of fifteen, thought she was ready for is actually far more complicated and frightening; Williams’ seemingly polite manner is a brittle cover for expectations that coil around her like a snake and slowly make her lose her ability to defend herself. Oates’ original story was written in the sixties and was inspired by real-life serial killer Charles Schmid, but Chopra has done an ideal job of updating it to the eighties and aptly describing the phenomenon of highly increased teen presence in the popular culture of the time. Movies, television shows and (most important) commercial product placement appealed to that age group as a consumer and encouraged the hiding of struggles with identity and the onset of adulthood under a false sense of sexual confidence, writing off the wisdom of adults as out of touch pains in the ass (Place’s character is one of the few moms in a teen film from this time who is presented as helpless as opposed to hopeless). Chopra isn’t interested in judging her heroine for her ignorance of the role she plays in her own experience, the conclusion is neither a punishment or a rite of passage, and she finds something perversely admirable about Williams’ skill at using the overconfidence of youth, leaving the most important scene off screen and increasing its power as the story’s climax.

The Criterion Collection:  #1068

Toronto International Film Festival: 1985

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