The shiveringly memorable "Smooth Talk" (Friday at Beverly Cineplex and Brentwood Theatre) may be the first film to get adolescence in America right, down to the last, delicate seismographic tremor. What it knows about the age will scare adults to death, because these film makers remember , as clearly as Joyce Carol Oates did when she wrote the short story from which "Smooth Talk" was made.
They know the lies kids tell--good kids--just to give themselves breathing room (this was made from "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Sound familiar?). They know small towns and shopping malls and triplexes; the jewelry that girls put on and the clothes they take off after they've left the house--the whole, elaborate moonscape of being 15. And they know the hot, dangerous high of attraction, of hinting at experience you don't have--and aren't sure you really want. Yet.
The setting of "Smooth Talk" is the unremarkable present. Summer vacation. Small town. Petaluma, north of San Francisco. The lowest ebb in relations between the family's youngest, tall, blond 15-year-old Connie (Laura Dern) and her youngish mother (Mary Kay Place), who alternately loves her daughter and finds her the most selfish human being ever put on the planet. Connie has two best friends, one (Margaret Welch) a rather better friend than the other; a simple, affectionate father (Levon Helm) and a sister (Elizabeth Berridge) who, at 24, still lives at home and gives Connie, who loves her, fits. In other words, utter normalcy.
The three girlfriends cover for each other regularly, "go to the same movie" three nights running. In other words, they hang out across the divided highway at the hamburger stand, where they flirt, tease, dance a little, and try as much as they can to put the ignominy of being 15 behind them.
What the film makers also understand is that there's no one in the life of a girl quite like the hard guy--the one with the black shoes, the leather jacket or the cowboy boots. Talk to any woman and watch her face change as she remembers that one. In "Smooth Talk," he's Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), maybe a little dangerous, maybe more than that; a man, not a boy, who hangs out at the high school kids' hamburger stand, a smooth talker.
He watches Connie, gawkiness smoothed out as she dances for a second by the jukebox, oblivious to him. But as she leaves, Friend makes his signature gesture: One finger extended like a gun, he drawls, "I'm watchin' you."
And within days, without violence, with nothing ever overt on the screen, "Smooth Talk" becomes perhaps the most devastating rite-of-passage history imaginable.
It is director Joyce Chopra's first feature; she has been known as a director of documentaries. Her work with her actors is a matter of delicacy, placement, nuance and shade. It's an inside job, with everyone to do with the film seeming to share the same tender understanding of this material. And where screenwriter Tom Cole has added to the original, haunting story (which is almost all the dialogue except the crucial duet), he has written scenes with their own precise imagery, as strong as Oates' own.
What makes Laura Dern's performance the event that it is--one of the finest, most sustained and most shatteringly observed we've had this year--is that it's rare to have this variety of insights about adolescence from an actress so nearly that age herself. And Williams, her partner in the film's hypnotic duet of eroticism and spellbinding, is the very best he has been in years. If he seems to be posturing at the beginning, doing James Dean, doing a young Brando, it turns out to be exactly right. The depth of Arnold Friend's sincerity makes you, at last, understand the girls who fell for crazy Charlie Manson.
Mary Kay Place makes clear the dilemma of a caring mother during this mine-field period, where any impulsive, affectionate gesture can bring about an anguished " Moth er, please!" Many of the film's songs are by its music director, James Taylor. James Glennon did the glowingly fine camerawork and Patrick Dodd the supple editing, and while appreciation is going around, we should make mention of Martin Rosen ("Watership Down"), who produced "Smooth Talk," and of "American Playhouse" and its executive producer Lindsay Law, for whom the film was originally made. 'SMOOTH TALK'
A Spectrafilm release of a Goldcrest Presentation of a Nepenthe/American Playhouse Theatrical Production. Executive producer Lindsay Law. Producer Martin Rosen. Director Joyce Chopra. Screenplay Tom Cole, based on "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates. Music director James Taylor. Score Bill Payne, Russell Kunkel, George Massenburg. Camera James Glennon. Editor Patrick Dodd. Production design David Wasco. Costumes Carol Oditz. With Treat Williams, Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place, Levon Helm, Elizabeth Berridge, Sarah Inglis, Margaret Welch.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned to give special guidance for attendance of children under 13).