"Smooth Talk" holds a rich pedigree. Produced on a relatively shoestring budget in 1985, the film was based upon prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates' stirring 1966 short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"a staple in college literature courses. It won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival. Upon its limited theatrical release, the picture was met with wide critical acclaim, and ultimately went on to be nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards. Legendary musician James Taylor contributed three tracks to the soundtrack, including "Limousine Driver" (an original song) and the indelibly integrated "Handy Man." And finally, front and center among the cast, was 18-year-old Laura Dern, the fresh-faced offspring of respected actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd. Her performance as 15-year-old Connieby all intents and purposes, her first lead role after a few minor partssignaled not only the arrival of an original, versatile, one-of-a-kind new talent, but also the beginning of a twenty-plus-year career filled with standout turns.
Despite all of these accolades and credentials, and despite receiving something of a resurrection on DVD, "Smooth Talk" has seemingly fallen by the wayside in the two decades since its release. It's a shame. The film, written by Tom Cole and directed by Joyce Chopra, is an American masterpiece of modern cinema, at once a blisteringly truthful coming-of-age story, a haunting morality tale, and an uncompromising portrait of the alternately dark and light underpinnings of life as seen through the eyes of a female adolescent.
To watch the movie is to almost be transported into the story as an invisible spectator, observing Connie not as one might a manufactured screen creation but as a real flesh-and-blood person, deeply sympathetic both in spite and because of her internal imperfections and the external missteps she makes along the way. In other words, she stands for you, me, and anyone who has ever been a teenager. That she can be self-absorbed and even a little selfish is not the point; it is the destination that Connie ends up at, her experiences informing her on who she was and transforming her into the stronger, more mature young woman she ultimately becomes, that is crucial to the lingering beauty of "Smooth Talk."
It is the summer before her sophomore year of high school, and virtually the only thing on Connie's (Laura Dern) mind is the opposite sex. This fact is not lost upon her harried stay-at-home mother Katherine (Mary Kay Place), who feels underappreciated by her daughter and uses criticisms as a coping mechanism"I look into your eyes," she says to Connie at one point, "and all I see are a bunch of trashy daydreams." In return, Connie becomes emotionally distant; from her perspective, nothing she can do is right, and her mother's outward preference for elder daughter June (Elizabeth Berridge), a 24-year-old wallflower still living at home, is not lost upon her. Meanwhile, Connie's relationship with her father Harry (Levon Helm) is on better terms, but they fail to connect. When he talks to her about his contentment in having a family, owning a home, and being his own boss, she has no way of understanding what he means. "I can't wait until I'm old enough to drive," is all Connie can think to offer in return.
Knowledgeable of her blossoming sexuality without really perceiving the consequences of exploiting it, Connie's world starts when she leaves her house. Going day after day to the mall with friends Laura (Margaret Welsh) and Jill (Sarah Inglis), she puts make-up on and redresses herself in the restroom, then parades around the plaza with the sole intention of attracting and flirting with anyone who will give her the time of day. It's harmless enough, at first, but Connie takes a bigger step toward "playing grown-up" when she and Laura venture across the street to Frank's, a burger joint where the older crowd hangs out.
Clad in a revealing skirt and halter-top, it doesn't take Connie more than a couple minutes to capture the attention of a nice guy named Jeff (William Ragsdale), recently out of high school, who invites her for a drive. Parked atop a lovers' lane, the glimmering lights of the town outstretching for miles before them, Connie remarks to Jeff, "I wish I could just travel somewhere." They're the words of someone old enough to recognize the boundless opportunities out there for her, and young enough that her wistful outlook hasn't yet been tainted by the messy realities of life. They share a single kiss, simple and pure, and Jeff returns Connie to the diner to meet up again with Laura. When she returns again a couple nights later and allows a different and slightly older guy, Eddie (David Berridge), to take her to an empty parking garage, they make out for as long as it takes Connie to realize she's not yet ready for what he's expecting of her.
The first hour of "Smooth Talk" is more of a character exploration than a plot-intensive narrative. Director Joyce Chopra meticulously conceives the story this way for a reason, taking the time to set up Connie's humdrum existence and uneventful walks on the wild side so that when her "nothing-bad-can-happen-to-me" beliefs are suddenly pulled out from under her, it makes a startling impact. Angry at her mother yet again and feeling like an outsider, she decides to stay home alone while the rest of them leave for a family barbecue. Connie's lazy day of listening to music, lying out in the sun, and making bead necklaces takes an abrupt left turn when a yellow Pontiac convertible comes barreling down the dirt driveway back to her house. The driver is a dangerously handsome and seductive man (Treat Williams), probably in his early thirties, who calls himself Arnold Friend. He claims he's been watching her from afarnot too far, though, since he reveals details about her life that few knowand wants to take her for a ride. Understandably suspicious of Arnold Friend and his intentions, Connie politely passes on the offer. It rapidly becomes apparent, however, that he won't be taking no for an answer.
What happens next is up to each individual viewer to discover, but, suffice it to say, Arnold Friend talks to Connie in such a way that her innocence and naiveté are stolen away from her. Treat Williams is mesmerizing as the antagonistic Arnold Friend, an intentional question mark of a character with enough smooth swagger and machismo to understand his magnetism. Inspired, at least in part, by serial killer Charles Schmid, the so-called "Pied Piper of Tucson," Williams concurrently plays Arnold as a threatening, spectral figure, possibly capable of committing terrible acts. It is in his careful juggling of these two diverse demeanors that creep under the viewer's skin. Through this frightening experience with Arnold Friend, Connie's rite of passage into adulthood is complete. Her flaws, her mistakes, her broken relationshipsthey all become glaringly apparent in a heartbreaking climactic moment that signals her growth as a more compassionate human being.
The performances, like the naturalistic writing and in-the-moment direction, are spot-on. Laura Dern is magnificent as Connie, self-assured and vulnerable in equal measures, able to look like a child in one moment and like a worldly woman the next. The character arc that Connie has from the first scene to the last is incalculably huge, and Dern is breathtaking as she navigates the excitement, the loneliness, the alienation, the acceptance, and the fear that come with the territory of one's teenage years.
As Connie's mom, Mary Kay Place is just right, capable of expressing the warmth and love she has for her younger daughter, but also infuriating in the error-filled way she tries to get through to her even as she shuts her out. In a quietly touching scene where Katherine listens from an adjoining room to the song (James Taylor's "Handy Man") Connie is playing and silently dances with herself, the door is opened to a side of Katherine the viewer has not seen. Yes, she harps on her daughter and is settling into her middle-aged year, but she hasn't totally broken ties with the remembrances of her own youth.
Also making an enduring impression is Elizabeth Berridge, as Connie's sister June. June is kind to Connie, but she is also envious, recognizing that her baby sister's beauty and personality will carry her further in life than she herself will ever get. "You're gonna have it all, aren't you? And you think you deserve it," June says. In that moment, Connie doesn't yet grasp what she means. By the film's conclusion, she does.
The final two minutes of "Smooth Talk" are note-perfect, subtle and hopeful, emotionally overwhelming but refreshingly unmanipulative, ambiguously suggestive and yet full of clarity. Everything that the film is and stands for masterfully builds to this ending. Bad things can sometimes happen to good people and childhood is fleeting, director Joyce Chopra seems to be saying, but one's own humanity is a nonnegotiable constant. "Smooth Talk" is an unheralded marvel of a motion picture, and one of the more vibrant and authentic depictions of teenage life in memory.