Smooth Talk February 15, 2018
Mary Kay Place
1 Hr., 31 Mins.
Before 1985’s Smooth Talk, an 18-year-old Laura Dern had yet to announce herself an actress. Although she’d made six films previously, only one of them – ‘85’s Mask – had actually allowed her to stretch her performative muscles. Understandably, maybe: she was still just the teenage daughter of Hollywood heavy-hitters Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern trying to make it big. But when you watch Smooth Talk, which features an almost unnervingly emotionally precise leading performance from the budding actress, you wonder why she wasn’t her own regular River Phoenix. You get the sense
that if the opportunities were there, she would’ve gotten raves as a kid and then would have almost effortlessly made the transition into adult parts.
In Smooth Talk, she gives a performance so good, you almost wish her breakthrough, Blue Velvet (1986), had come out a couple years later just so it’d stop casting a dark shadow atop Dern’s pre-Lynch filmography. Here, she plays Connie, a restive 15-year-old in the midst of yet another languorous summer. Unceasingly bored, most of her days and nights are spent with her Madonna wannabe friends at the mall and other local hot spots. She certainly doesn’t want to be home: her favorites-playing mother (Mary Kay Place) incessantly judges her for constantly going out (and for her determination to gain a boy’s affection by the end of the summer), and her father is basically an emotionally ungiving plank. No one takes her seriously.
Her desires are typical of a 15-year-old – she wants a boyfriend, she wants to look pretty, she wants to be an adult – but screenwriter Tom Cole renders them with the same seriousness of Virginia Woolf-level longing. And Dern, who by turns seems self-possessed and emotionally immature, understands her Connie so deeply that potential triviality’s avoided.
Elsewhere, Smooth Talk’d be an uncommonly quiet coming-of-age movie. And it is that – partially. But then the movie, itself a loose adaptation of Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1966) by Joyce Carol Oates, lets darkness in. The first act of the feature is dedicated to developing Connie as ordinary a teenager as any: moody, sexually curious, potential-ridden, perceptibly frustrated. But then the second coats everything in layers of Badlands (1973)-style malevolence that makes our skin prickle. After a near-sexual experience leaves her wanting more, Connie meets a stranger who embodies the long-exhausted tall, dark, and handsome cliché. Named Arnold (Treat Williams, mysterious), the stranger drives a freshly waxed sports convertible, boasts a tanned and toned physique emphasized by a partially unbuttoned beach shirt and hip-hugging blue jeans, and speaks only in James Dean-esque purrs.
Although he’s noticeably older, Arnold is able to draw Connie in not just with his appearance but also through his warmth and his knowledge of popular youth culture. Plus, he’s among the few people who seems to want to get to know her. When adults cast her aside as an immature little girl and when her friends remind her how young she is, Arnold makes Connie feel like the sexual being she wants to be. But just as their whispered flirtations are about to ignite, Smooth Talk undergoes an unsettling albeit ambiguous twist. First, Arnold’s verbal gallantries start becoming aggressive and vaguely psychotic — immediately ridding Connie of any innocence she might have had left. Then it’s implied that he rapes her.
This is never made exactly clear, however. We only see the antagonistic tête-à-tête, which cuts to Dern walking away from Williams in such a way that suggests humiliation and trauma. But whether the film is trying to show that its heroine was forever altered by this creepy verbal showdown or by an actual physical violation is not entirely the point. What Cole and director Joyce Chopra want to convey, I think, is that this dangerous liaison, however physical it was or wasn’t, is supposed to fall under the category of the sort of event that can change someone’s life. The kind of event that can erase innocence without warning. The kind of event that isn’t all that uncommon. This vagueness underlines that at some moment in everyone’s life is there an incident where their ever-precious, youthful nescience suddenly vanishes. That Connie’s experience is so much more horrific than most is harrowing.
This makes Smooth Talk a particularly disturbing coming-of-age movie. Whereas most films exemplifying the genre are generally lighthearted, most often playing up to the John Hughes formula, this one wonders what it would be like to see one’s loss of innocence be undercut with menace. So often are we used to seeing pretty well-adjusted teens welcome in adulthood in relatively painless ways. But what about the underrepresented who aren’t provided with such a clean-cut opportunity? Some might ask what Smooth Talk’s point is. Because it is so lethargic and so largely upsetting, why is it worth watching? What makes this movie so riveting has all to do with how scrupulous and sensitive Dern’s performance is, and how unforgettably it subverts the norms of the coming-of-age movie. A-