The male sexual coming of age has been pounded flat under hundreds of footprints, but few filmmakers have done the same for females -- from the movies, you'd think women never went through the same thing. The virtue of Joyce Chopra's "Smooth Talk" is that it ventures out into this underexplored territory.
It is summertime, and Connie (Laura Dern), a high school freshman, leads a life bounded by the beach on one side and the shopping mall on the other. She is what my mother would call "boy-crazy," leaning over the escalator to ogle dungareed "buns," trailing guys into stores. She is what her mother (Mary Kay Place) would call a pain in the neck, self-centered and difficult.
One night Connie leaves the shopping mall and crosses the street (which is called, presumably, "Metaphor Road"), winding up in a hot dog stand peopled by young men with one thing on their minds. They like her. She likes that they like her. But one of them, Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), a hustler with a good line of smooth talk, maybe likes her more than she'd like him to.
Despite a nice performance by Dern, "Smooth Talk" never gets better than its good intentions. Adapted from a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, the movie is awfully short-storyish -- it meanders through its slight narrative, and the dialogue can be stilted and literary (it's meant to be read, not heard). On a technical level, "Smooth Talk" is strictly amateurish. The cinematography and production design are chaotic, the sound hollow and echoing. James Taylor's music seems inappropriate (does anyone under 40 listen to soft rock anymore?), and the way the movie advertises it (Connie putting "Sweet Baby James" on the record player and saying "I love this song") just seems crass.
Chopra's direction, too, is stilted; at times, the movie looks like a filmed play -- the frame lacks the open edges of real cinema, which only makes the acting seem more cartoonish than it already is. Williams can be fun, slumping like a sex-heavy ape, but Chopra gives him too much room (the performance builds to a kind of Post-Method holocaust). And Place only makes you feel how horrible it would be to have an actress for a mother.
Dern, charging through the mall like a giraffe, awkward and giggly, creates a portrait of a shallow American girl so effective, it verges on nightmare. Her mouth is beveled in from her large nose and pointed chin, so that she always seems to be vaguely disgusted, out of sorts -- even when she's smiling, she looks like she's smelled something stinky. Connie is just a silly girl, but Dern makes you care about her -- she draws you into her confusion.
But Dern never creates any sexual heat, and neither does Chopra -- she's so busy explaining how Connie's sexual desire grows out of her unhappy home life, she never acknowledges what's basic and animal about it. Chopra pretends to be interested in Connie's sexual blooming, but all along, she just wants to disapprove of it. In "Smooth Talk," sex is dangerous, men are full of menace, you can't be too careful, you've got to stick close to your family. It's a movie about girls written for their moms.
Smooth Talk, at the Key, is rated PG-13 and contains profanity and sexual themes.