One of the great lost films of the 1980s and one everyone should see.
Starring Laura Dern and Treat Williams
Adapted from Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? A short story By Joyce Carol Oates 1966
BEV Review – Tom Symmons
Directed by Joyce Chopra and winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize (1986), Smooth Talk (1985) is a neglected gem of a film and one of the most original and authentic depictions of teenage life. A long overdue departure from the standard male of rite of passage, the film focuses on the sexual awakening of Connie, a charming, free-spirited teenage girl, played by a young Laura Dern, perfectly captures that difficult and awkward stage when a teenager is no longer a child, but not yet an adult, as experience is gained at the expense of innocence lost. By turns cheerful, wilful, restless, unhappy, desirous and vulnerable, Dern’s moving performance conveys the teenage state of mind in all its confusing complexity and is an impressive debut lead role which announced her as a serious, heavyweight actress.
Connie and her friends’ exuberant outings to town to have fun and meet boys is infectious, as they transform themselves with head-turning outfits and make-up smuggled out of the house. A brief encounter in a bar-diner with a handsome, considerably older, predatory charmer (played with nuanced perfection by Treat Williams), brings a subtle note of dark menace to his Fifties’ rebel persona with an initialed, darkly ironic name: ‘A. Friend’.
But Connie, who is tall, blond and pretty, is emotionally younger than she looks: late at night making out in the back of a car with a teenage boy, she becomes afraid when he attempts to remove her clothes. Confused and upset, she walks home alone, warning off a group of drunken men who proposition her from a passing car.
At home, her relationship with her mother is strained, in part over her flirtatious behaviour with boys. But it is also implied that she is envious of her daughter’s youthful freedom: in one scene the mother wistfully sings along to ‘Handy Man’ on the radio, as Connie sings along in an adjoining room. There is mutual affection, however, when mother and daughter happily start to repaint the family house together, metaphorically ‘making good’, if only briefly, their volatile relationship. The complexities and difficulties of a teenage family life are further compounded by her difficult relationship with her envious sister and her remote father.
The first act, led by Dern’s intelligent performance, explores the vagaries of a conventional portrait of teenage life coupled with familial tensions and courtship rituals. But, these typical genre tropes are vital to the film’s second act ensuring that, having some insight into her experience and state of mind, we deeply empathise with Connie, gaining a vivid sense of the ambivalent desires of a girl who yearns for the experiences of the adult world, yet is wary of the difficulties and dangers ahead…
Set at the family house on a hot afternoon, the second act subtly shifts, blurring fantasy and reality and reframing the narrative as a dark, cautionary fairy tale. Connie, having declined to join her family on an outing, is alone, entertaining herself around the house when an old custom car pulls up outside. Painted on the side is ‘A. Friend’.
Arnold Friend, the handsome older man from the bar-diner, speaks with Connie at length. He attempts to charm and flatter her with ‘smooth talk’ and tries to coerce her into going for a drive with him. Initially flattered by this attention, Connie soon becomes frightened when coercion turns to veiled threats when he informs her that he knows her parents’ precise movements. Veiled threats become all too real when he calls to his taciturn sidekick, sitting in the car, to cut the phone line, and Connie retreats into the house closing a flimsy screen door behind her. Friend coolly tells her of the ease with which he could break down the door and destroy her home. Connie finally relents, leaving his sidekick to look after the house.
The scene is not without ambiguity, however: was it fantasy – about Connie both wanting and not wanting this man – or was it reality? The ending is ambiguous, too: Connie returns with Friend, looking disheveled. The upbeat lyrics from the song we hear earlier in the film seem to hold a murkier meaning as they play out suggestively: ‘I can be your handy man…’. We are left to contemplate exactly what occurred during this encounter between a vulnerable teenage girl and a predatory older man…