Thursday, January 14, 2016

Off the Shelf: Smooth Talk (Blu-ray)

by Patrick Bromley
This is one of the great lost films of the 1980s and one everyone should see.

It's criminal that Joyce Chopra's 1985 coming of age drama Smooth Talk isn't talked about more in discussions of the best movies of the '80s. It's a beautiful film, and a sad and scary one, too.

Based on Joyce Carol Oates' short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" the movie tells the story of 14-year old Connie (Laura Dern), a young woman whose body has matured faster than she has and who is anxious to leave home and be treated as an adult. She lies to her parents about where she's going, hanging out at the mall or the beach with her friends and enjoying the attention she gets from men. One man whose attention she catches is Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), who shows up at her house one day when she's alone and demands a date.
Smooth Talk works brilliantly on two levels. On the one hand, it is a lyrical and gorgeous coming of age movie that fully understands what being 14 feels like in a way that so few films are able to capture. On a second level, it is an absolute horror film in which we as the outside observer must bear witness to the terrible inevitability of Connie's fate. The greatness of Laura Dern's performances is that she looks like a woman and she wants to act like a woman but she is far from being a woman. She is innocent and naïve and only somewhat aware of the power she had over men, too busy finding it flirty fun to understand the dangers of the big bad wolves lurking at every turn.

That's the first hour of the film. The final third takes a sinister turn, becoming a 30-minute exchange between Dern and Treat Williams that is terrifying and heartbreaking. Neither Chopra nor the screenplay by Tom Cole (a playwright and the director's husband) place the blame on Connie -- the doesn't make the mistake of suggesting she brought it on herself -- but there is a quiet devastation to Connie's romantic notions about the world, about men, about sex being destroyed in the span of a single afternoon. The end of the movie is completely shattering, attempting to restore the status quo of Connie back with her family and being a kid but we know it's a lie. There's no going back. Even James Taylor's easy listening classic "Handy Man" playing over the end credits becomes the most impossibly sad song ever recorded.
I don't want to come on like the Mayor's Wife here, acting like I'm the only one championing this little movie that not enough people have seen. I myself only saw it for the first time last year when I was putting together an "underrated '85" list for the Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog. I was aware of the movie because I remembered reading Roger Ebert's four-star review, but it was hard to come by for years. No so anymore, as Olive Films have reissued the movie on Blu-ray for the first time. There are no special features, but the transfer is solid and the film speaks for itself. I'm so glad more people will now have the opportunity to find this movie.

Smooth Talk won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance the year it came out, then played for one week and grossed a total of $16,000 before disappearing into near obscurity. Chopra directed only one more narrative feature, The Lemon Sisters, in 1989 before turning her attention fully to documentary filmmaking. The fate of Smooth Talk is as heartbreaking and unfair as the movie itself. Luckily it now has a second chance.

Blu-ray release date: November 24, 2015
92 minutes/1985/PG-13
1.85:1 (1080p)
DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)


  1. This sounds so good. Thanks, Patrick, I'll look for this one.

  2. I count myself as lucky-- I actually got to see this in a theater when it was first released. It is everything Patrick is saying it is...

    1. Oh and it sounds so up my alley. The focus of the story sounds very adapted-from-a-book, which Patrick pointed out it is. Before I knew Brooklyn was adapted from a book, I guessed that it was. I wonder if/how one can tell.

    2. Usually films made from novels have more intricate plots and often have more interesting characters. There's a certain richness to the narrative. Has anyone else ever noticed this?

    3. Depends on the adaptation and the filmmakers, though. "Bonfire of the Vanities" is a terrific Tom Wolfe novel, but the De Palma movie adaptation doesn't feel like its characters and narratives are rich or intricate at all. And we know how well De Palma nailed the essence of "Carrie," Stephen King's first-of-many books adapted to the screen. Each book-to-film adaptation has to be judged individually to gauge whether the screenwriter/director managed to extract the essence of the written word into film language.

      One of my favorite book-to-movie adaptation of all time is Alan Pakula's "All the President's Men," and William Goldman's screenplay basically covers only the first third of 'Woodstein's' investigation into the Watergate scandal. But the exploration of how wrapped into the story the Post editors and the reporters got during the first months of the scandal is gripping because the actors, direction and screenwriting convey how important it was to keep digging for the truth against all odds. I'm a Watergate Scandal whore who knows every detail of the scandal, and "All the President's Men" won me over despite leaving the better parts of the story (like 'The Saturday Night Massacre' and Nixon's resignation) to a montage of typed news reports at the very end. "Spotlight" breathes that same air, and it's also a movie that stops at a dramatic point even though there's a lot more story left to be told... but doesn't have to cover it because seeing the reporters work the story is dramatic enough. You only have to look at the vanity journalism movie "Truth" (also based on a book, also released in '15) to see it doing everything wrong that "Spotlight" does right.

      And BTW, "Smooth Talk" sounds like a flick worth chasing after when/if I have some leftover cash (kind-of broke at the moment). :-)

    4. I wondered if What's Eating Gilbert Grape, one of my top 5 fav movies - (because I have an autistic sister and it hits suuuper close to home) was from a book and yes- it is! It's the type. Like JB said- really intricate plot and intricate characters. And by "intricate" I mean so much of the story is based on moments when like the characters just look at each other for a moment in a certain way.

      I've also noticed (and okay I'm just throwing theories out there now and seeing if anything sticks) some adapted movies are really good at handling "big picture time and place", placing characters very clearly in a context of a bigger world/country/time period, while at the same time doing a great job at focusing on their personal stories. Hey, I wonder if Dirty Dancing (overrated romance and underrated coming of age story in my opinion) is from a book- it does these things well, too.

      I'm guessing that maybe they can be so strong in these ways because of the simple fact that they were already thoroughly thought through and laid out before. Not to say all adaptions are good but maybe they stand out sometimes?

      The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is another adapted movie in my top 5s. I almost feel embarrassed because these movies are not excitingly cinematic, but I don't know- they're just so good. I would love them as books but they're better with facial expressions and acting and songs.

    5. And I just realized my other top 3 are all very based on successful movie-medium specific devices- Groundhog Day, A League of Their Own and Soapdish. I need Sally Field's face!!!

  3. I think I'm about half as enthusiastic about this as everyone else (I saw it last year, since my library had an old DVD copy). It's...good, but I could never really get fully engaged in it, like I wanted something more that I just wasn't getting. But lordy, Dern and Williams are great in it (and Mary Kay Place is also really good as Dern's mother).

  4. I saw this film on PBS. It was my introduction to Laura Dern. It has haunted me since.