A young woman barely scrapes by in Susan Seidelman’s 1982 feature
From the jangly rock music playing as a patterned skirt enters the screen and a woman’s hand steals a matching set of sunglasses, it’s clear at the first sequence that Smithereens is an unusual work with an original voice. Susan Seidelman, who would go on to direct Desperately Seeking Susan and She-Devil, burst onto the scene in 1982 with this raucous, low-budget film about a naive narcissist in NYC. Smithereens would be the first American indie film to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival — quite a feat for a young woman director.
Wren (Susan Berman) yearns for fame, although she has no real talent for gaining it. She pastes posters she’s made during her dayjob in a copy shop up in the subway and around town. She wants to manage a band and falls for con artist/musician Eric (played by punk artist Richard Hell). Meanwhile shy country boy Paul (Brad Rijn) follows her around — when he isn’t hanging out in his painted van in an abandoned lot.
Like Cabiria, Wren remains hopeful amidst cheats and failures; unlike the Fellini character, she keeps a tart tongue and is far more of a schemer. Wren may not be able to make something happen for herself, but she’ll do what she can to try. She’ll eat fries off someone else’s plate, fake her way past a club bouncer, and surf from couch to couch (more accurately, floor to floor). She eschews romantic entanglement from the dreamy Paul, but makes plans for a possible future with Eric.
Shot without permits, Smithereens presents a somewhat stylized portrait of the city, yet mires the unsettled Wren in the grunginess of the period. Seidelman created a distinctive look for Wren, with outfits sporting outspoken patterns and loud prints. A pair of fishnet stockings recurs on the character, growing more torn as the story progresses. Her loud costumes speak to her desire for attention from others; such fashion choices provide further insight into the main character.
Smithereens is gritty, from the fuzzy 16mm print to the grimy city settings. Wren’s striving nature still rings true in these days when most every young adult has a side hustle and those who have the gumption and ambition aim to become “influencers” on social media. Seidelman’s debut feature stands out as a portrait of an abrasive woman.
The new Blu-ray from Criterion includes special features such as:
- A director-approved 2K digital restoration, along with a 2004 commentary track from Seidelman
- Two of Seidelman’s NYU student short films: And You Act Like One Too (1976) & Yours Truly, Andrea G. Stern (1979)
- Interview with Seidelman & actress Susan Berman about the making of Smithereens and the journey to Cannes