Criterion Review: SMOOTH TALK

Laura Dern captivates in this breakout performance


Suspended between carefree youth and the harsh realities of the adult world, a teenage girl experiences an unsettling awakening in this haunting vision of innocence lost. Based on the celebrated short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, the narrative debut from Joyce Chopra features a revelatory breakout performance by Laura Dern as Connie, the fifteen-year-old black sheep of her family whose summertime idyll of beach trips, mall hangouts, and innocent flirtations is shattered by an encounter with a mysterious stranger (a memorably menacing Treat Williams). Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Smooth Talk captures the thrill and terror of adolescent sexual exploration as it transforms the conventions of a coming-of-age story into something altogether more troubling and profound.

A hot summer in small town America and fifteen-year-old Connie (Laura Dern) is preoccupied with ideas of romance and seduction, teasing boys and testing the limits of her power on young boys at the mall. Seeking greater thrills, and daring to defy her parents, she starts to hangout at the more adult trappings of Frank’s, a roadside bar and diner. An older boy, Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), takes an interest in her, and when Connie’s parents and sisters leave town, her arrives on her doorstep, and his persistence begins to transform into something more intense and disturbing.

Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ celebrated short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, Smooth Talk is a remarkably potent feature debut from director Joyce Chopra. A coming of age drama, where the quiet life and frustrations of a young teen, crosses paths with a dangerous element in the form of an older man. Its a situation that doesn’t just highlight an egregious level of male toxicity, but also the derelict relationship between this young woman and her parents, that have left her in a position where she is not only unable to protect herself, but also see the danger before its too late.

Smooth Talk opens with a youthful vibrancy, a sense of warmth and Americana that puts you at ease. At its center, a young girl deriving satisfaction from the thrill of being wanted, filling an unmet need thanks to friction at home. Enter Arnold Friend, drawing her out from safety, into a world of danger, Connie bending to his will to protect herself and her loved ones. This tonal transition in the film mirrors Connie’s own plight. Straddling two worlds, driven from the one by energy and curiosity, into another she is wholly unprepared for. A determination to push boundaries, and the consequence of absentee parents clash with toxic masculinity. The ensuing abuse, both physical and psychological, provide a harsh awakening as she crosses into adulthood.

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Smooth Talk is Laura Dern. Her stellar talent evident in this breakout role, as she shifts between the multiple states this young woman inhabits. Young naive girl, a boundary pushing teen, an inexperienced but sexually driven woman, and everything in-between. Her performance expertly delving into the trauma that can be associated with a uneasy family dynamic, initiation into womanhood, and terror of becoming powerless. Treat Williams delivers a devilish James Dean like figure, charming with flashes of behavior that would send off warning bells to anyone older or more savvy.

Williams makes for an unforgettable villain, but he’s not the only one here as the film is pretty adept at showcasing the malfunctioning family unit and how it has failed Connie. Overshadowed by her well behaved and accomplished sister, June (Elizabeth Berridge), regarded as the black sheep of her family by her mother (Mary Kay Place), while the absence of the father in both their lives is suggested and observed. Joyce Chopra expertly handles the mood, and mounting tension as we observe the failure of this family unit, a mother and father derelict in their duty. Quieter moments compel as much as the dialogue, while the film is permeated with a sense of tragedy that feels hard to predict, and yet inevitable. A smooth talking predator, setting his sights on an isolated girl, lacking an avenue of communication and trust, support and structure, to survive his onslaught.

The Package

Having been lucky enough to catch Smooth Talk on 35mm a few years back, I can attest this transfer is a wonderful representation of the film, one supervised by director Joyce Chopra. A warm and organic looking palette, grain is healthy and natural, adding to some well rendered texture and depth of image, detail is also notable. Extra features are plentiful:

  • Conversation among Chopra, author Joyce Carol Oates, and actor Laura Dern from the 2020 New York Film Festival, moderated by TCM host Alicia Malone: A nearly hour long Q&A that followed a screening of the film. Most of the discussion surrounds the original story that inspired the film, the underlying themes of the tale, and insights to the production/shoot itself
  • New interview with Chopra: A very personal reflection on her career (and life) that turns into a rumination on the changes to her approach to filmmaking
  • New interview with production designer David Wasco: Running about 20 minutes, Wasco discusses his (impressive) career in general as well as his contribution to the overall look of Smooth Talk
  • KPFK Pacifica Radio interview with Chopra from 1985: An archival audio interview where the filmmaker talks about the inspiration for, and conception of the project just before it’ premiere
  • Joyce at 34 (1972), Girls at 12 (1975), and Clorae and Albie (1976), three short films by Chopra: each around 30 minutes in length, which give a nice overview of her earlier works
  • Audio reading of the 1966 Life magazine article “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” which inspired the short story by Oates: Watching the movie, you get the ever increasing realization that Friend is a monster, you might not realize he was loosely based on a real life one. This audio article by Don Moser adds a look of context to the original short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and also satiates the true-crime bug that seems so prevalent in us these days with the information given about serial killer Charles Schmid Jr.
  • Trailers: original and a new one cut in 2020 to mark the 4K remaster
  • New interviews with actors Mary Kay Place and Treat Williams: Taken from an online Q&A recorded in 2020, its a interesting dive into the films themes as well as the specific conflicts and challenges for the characters
  • New cover based on an original theatrical poster by Vincent Topazio, with a liner booklet featuring an essay on the film by writer Honor Moore, a 1986 New York Times article by Oates about the adaptation, Oates’s original 1966 short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, as well as information on the restoration and release of the film

The Bottom Line

Smooth Talk starts as a coming of age tale, but that builds into something more shrewd and unsettling, a cautionary warning about the perils of a caustic family environment, and entering adulthood ill prepared. Packed with emotion and nuance, driven by a breakout performance from Laura Dern, and deft direction from Joyce Chopra, Smooth Talk is a welcome addition to the Criterion collection.

Smooth Talk is available via Criterion from February 23rd

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