‘Smooth Talk’ is a 1980s Time Capsule of Adolescent Promise, Anxiety, and Intimacy

'Smooth Talk' is a film that daringly refuses to allow its audience easy answers, sidestepping simple conclusions and reassurances of a bright future.

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Terror and trepidation dance across the face of 15-year-old Connie Wyatt (Laura Dern), the clashing uncertainty of where adolescence ends and adulthood begins in conflict upon her face. A face obscured by the safety of a screen door, evoking the safety net of suburban childhood. Beyond the screen, Connie’s older, would-be seducer Arnold Friend (Treat Williams) beckons from the enticing outdoors. Friend is of an indeterminate age, invoking the youth of bygone eras. He is young and old, exciting and terrifying in equal measure. 

We see this terror in the sympathetic gaze of director Joyce Chopra’s camera, the broad canvas of Connie’s face operating as a constantly changing landscape explored with intense scrutiny and endless sympathy in her 1985 film Smooth Talk. We see this in how the camera lingers on Connie’s face as she is berated by her strict mother (Mary Kay Place), her fear of disappointment illustrated all too effectively. Most importantly, we feel Chopra’s probing, generous camera following Connie’s escape to the family orchard, a setting of gorgeous color and beautiful natural scenery. We feel Connie’s liberated sense of freedom, but know in the back of our minds that that screen door lingers not too far away. 

Smooth Talk is a film about adolescence, a coming-of-age work that captures the minutiae of what it feels like to grow up in a specific time in a specific place. The film is firmly rooted in the 1980s, set in a small town still lingering in the nostalgic past, while containing haunting references to the malevolent outside world. Released to acclaim in 1985, Smooth Talk has been mostly forgotten in time, a rarely spoken-of but much revered masterpiece of feminist filmmaking. A spark that set the forthcoming explosion of Laura Dern’s acting career, the film boasts both confident filmmaking and an incredible performance from the young actress. Now, with a new restoration and home video release, Smooth Talk feels startlingly alive, an electrifying bolt of adolescent turmoil and drama that captures the specificity of its setting but remains timeless in style and urgency. The film’s themes of youthful naivete and sexual manipulation prove particularly potent today.

Based on a 1966 short story by the prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates, entitled “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” Smooth Talk is a perfect adaptation, taking the raw material of Oates’ famous short story and rendering it new, dragging the material into the present day. Joyce Chopra, a feminist filmmaker previously known for her groundbreaking documentary work, turned her eye to fiction filmmaking with this first feature. Her trademark style, linked to the direct cinema movements of verité documentary filmmaking, seamlessly makes the transition to fiction. Taking the haunting content of Oates’ short story and adding context, Chopra never dulls the impact of the original short story. Instead, she fleshes out the world of the characters, and creates an entire world out of a teenage girl’s life. 

Connie’s life is restless and listless, lost in the summer at her family’s farm house. She clashes with her family, fighting with her mother and quietly ignoring the praise heaped upon her older sister. Her father stays distant, apart from the drama of the family. Escaping the dullness of the family farm house, Connie finds solace with her friends in the adolescent mainstay of the local shopping mall. A site for teenaged mischief and flirtation, Chopra zeroes in on the undercurrent of feminine power and confidence beneath the young women’s antics. What might appear to be a group of women parading about the mall as they purchase frivolous items, under Chopra’s camera becomes layered images of power, and of young women enacting this power in the only ways they can at this point in their lives. The women adorn themselves with makeup and jewelry, taking pride in their femininity and in their appearances, away from the eyes of adult supervision. In the hands of a lesser director, Connie revealing her new halter top could feel licentious, but in Chopra’s carefully observed style the garment takes on new meaning as a symbol of youthful independence and pride. 

Painted in gleaming jukeboxes and reflective cars, Connie and her best friend’s sojourn to the local hamburger joint captures the slowly-bubbling anticipation of sex and romance, the possibility of meeting someone new hanging over the innocent environment. Rock music plays over young people meeting up, themselves unsure of where they are headed and with whom. Connie herself is along for the ride, caught up with her friends in the abandon that comes with youth but open to the possibility of romance. It is here that Connie meets Arnold Friend, in the nighttime mecca of boys and kissing couples and flashy automobiles. “I’m watching you,” he says playfully, and through Chopra’s camera so, of course, are we. 

What follows this initial meeting is one of the most intense sequences committed to film, a gut-wrenching dramatization of the turning point of youth into adulthood. When Arnold Friend arrives at Connie’s family home, Chopra narrows the focus of her film into the single setting, framed by the suffocation of the home, the shield of the screen door, and the uncertainty of the outdoors. Friend attempts to convince Connie to join him on his terms, an invitation into the oddly dated car he drives, punctuated by the strange references to youth culture peppering Friend’s speech. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a charming man using his charisma to hide his cruel intentions, the facade of youth co-opted to replace his true age. He makes himself into the man women like Connie can’t resist, an intentional construct of malicious intent. Connie’s dilemma, the desire to break free of the trappings of her home life into the promise of adulthood, frames this sequence, a simple premise made complex by the emotions surrounding it. Connie’s decision is small in the grand scheme of things, but earth-shattering in the way all formative experiences are. 

Powerlessness and innocence, the easy corruption of youth, the freedom of being a young person tied with the potential for manipulation, all make up the powerful themes that course through Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk. A film that daringly refuses to allow its audience easy answers, sidestepping simple conclusions and reassurances of a bright future, Chopra chooses ambiguity at every turn. Connie could be seen as weak, a woman easily manipulated by older men, but she is just any other 15-year-old girl: eager to please those around her, and finally starting to recognize the potential surrounding her emerging sexuality. 

By the film’s end, Connie is fully aware of how men look at her, but she doesn’t linger on any sense of powerlessness to others. Instead, she finds power elsewhere, in herself, away from the would-be predators courting her, the Arnold Friends of the world. Chopra’s camera spotlights the interior urgency of Connie, luminous and obvious despite hiding behind the security of a screen door. Arnold Friend croons to her from his car, muttering sweet nothings meant to sway the teenaged girl in his favor. Finally, by zeroing in on Connie’s face, we can feel her disgust, see the sick man lingering beneath the youthful exterior of Arnold Friend. We see Connie’s height, a girl wise beyond her years, finally feeling the power within her own agency. Her rejection of Arnold Friend refuses catharsis, placing a question mark at the end of Connie’s story, but we can tell from her emotive face: Connie is a woman who inhabits her own skin, and with that ability comes a power that can only be found at the end of adolescence. The terror and trepidation is gone, and adulthood is on the horizon. 

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