Smooth Talk
d. Joyce Chopra (1985)
The Criterion Collection

One of the supplements on the new Criterion Collection home video release of Smooth Talk is a conversation between the filmmaker, Joyce Chopra; the writer, Joyce Carol Oates; and the star, Laura Dern. This conversation is moderated by Alicia Malone, an always thoughtful and knowledgeable voice in film criticism. The supplement is called “The Women of Smooth Talk.” When I finished watching the movie, I immediately had to turn to this feature to see what I was missing, because my reaction to the film was deep discomfort at how it portrayed the coming of age of the young protagonist, Connie, played by Laura Dern. In a nutshell, my initial reaction can be best summarized by Coach Carl in Mean Girls: “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die.”

The film felt like a morality tale for young women, telling them that their sexuality was a danger to them if they started to embrace it. Is this a tale of a young girl being punished by sexual assault because she is interested in her sexuality?

But this interpretation made me deeply uncomfortable, and not just because such morals are, I believe, damaging to young women. No, I was uncomfortable that this was my takeaway from a film that is often heralded as a “feminist coming of age.” I was uncomfortable because I — a man — had pretty clearly missed something — I hoped. While the supplement helped me a bit — particularly when Dern said that Connie was interested in being seen by boys as well as men, and when Malone says that this body and sexuality could be dangerous and it feels like its our fault — I didn’t feel the four women addressed my primary concern, which is how the film’s ending (which is quite different from the story’s) seems to support the idea that all of this could have been prevented had Connie just listened to her mom, that it might be best to hold back if you’re a young woman with any urge to be sexual.

So I went to the smartest woman I know: my wife. What she had to tell me helped me immensely. I’ll get to that in a moment. First, let me step back and look at the film a bit.

Laura Dern’s Connie is a fifteen-year-old girl who is just beginning to experience the freedom of exploring the larger world. The film starts with her and her two friends waking up on the beach. They aren’t supposed to be there, having told their parents they were having a sleepover elsewhere, so they have to hitchhike back to town where they can be picked up and taken home.

Connie’s mom, however, knows her daughter is doing more than just going to play games at a friend’s house. That this mother-daughter relationship is fraught is shown right at the beginning. Here’s one example of just how harsh the dialogue between them has gotten: from Connie’s Mom: “I look at you. I look right in your eyes . . . and all I see are a bunch of trashy daydreams.”

Naturally, such a brutal statement cannot be taken back, and it does nothing to make Connie feel her mom actually cares or understands. So Connie continues to venture out, crossing the metaphorical, as well as the literal, street:

Meanwhile, the gulf between her and her family widens. Some shots wonderfully show that this makes Connie feel both disdain and regret.

There are moments of reconciliation, but they are brief.

Around this time, we meet the lurking Arnold Friend, played superbly by Treat Williams. We see him pull up in his car, but he’s just one in the crowd. We really start to sense who he is when, unbeknownst to Connie, he watches her dance to the juke box.

The final third of the film is adapts some techniques and images from a great horror film. I won’t go into details here, because it’s a strong scene, with Williams and Dern doing some wonderful, chilling work. There’s an off-kilter aspect to it that brought me right to the work of Flannery O’Connor.

But, again, it was hard for me to walk away and see the film as anything but a lesson for young girls, a lesson that has been rightly criticized for its negative impact.

So that brings me back to my wife. As I struggled to write this post, I briefly told her my misgivings, and she succinctly offered me a constructive viewpoint. She responded so quickly that it was clear to me that, yes, I have major blindspots. She said that part of coming of age as a female is realizing that you are prey. A young woman must navigate the crooked course of developing sexually while recognizing that many men are going to use it against you. My wife acknowledged that that doesn’t mean my interpretation of the film was wrong; indeed, the danger to young women is real, and the message of “behaving” offers at least an illusion of a safe harbor, albeit one that requires real, damaging sacrifices. This damaging, protective message is part of the trouble of growing up as a female. Men use it to their advantage too. After all, Treat Williams’s character is creepy but brilliant in his own deviant way: he recognizes Connie and knows he will walk away with impunity because she’s going to blame herself.

So I have a lot more to think about as I sit with this film. But I can say right now that Laura Dern’s Connie opened up to me. I see Dern’s performance as brilliantly playing all of the above. She is sympathetic because, after all, she wants love and sex and she doesn’t deserve the trouble that comes to her, just like she doesn’t deserve to have her mother condemning her — a mother who, if she knew what happened, would say, not just think, “I told you so.” As I said above, I didn’t think the film would side so closely with Connie’s mother, so much thanks to my wife for helping me realize that this film is doing more than punishing Connie when she’s down.

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