Synopsis: Based on the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, this film chronicles 15-year-old Connie Wyatt’s sexual awakening in the Northern California suburbs.
Stars: Treat Williams, Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place, Levon Helm, Margaret Welsh, Elizabeth Berridge
Director: Joyce Chopra
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: In the mid 90’s I went through a period of really hating Laura Dern. There was something about her gait, her delivery of a line, her bird-like features that really rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t take her seriously or sit through one of her films without feeling rumpled. Then the strength of her work in recent years (including a remarkable performance in HBO’s just canceled Enlightened and memorable supporting roles in movies like The Master and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio) made me change my mind, encouraging me to seek out some of her earlier work. Now, I’m enraptured.
That’s how I happened upon Smooth Talk, a true hidden gem of a picture that kept me on the edge of my seat thanks to a star performance by Dern as a California teenager flirting with danger over the course of one hot summer. Based on a story by Joyce Carol Oates, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival and it’s not hard to see why. With direction from Chopra and a Spartan script courtesy of Tom Cole what begins as a familiar look into teen angst in the mid 80’s turns into…well…I don’t want to spoil it for you. The film is surprising in its turns but never feels like it’s exploiting our lead character or the audience as it unwinds its careful yarn that may remind you a bit of Little Red Riding Hood.
Dern is astonishing here, navigating some tricky material that couldn’t have been easy to play. She’s supported well by Williams as a mysterious stranger that sets his sights on Dern and Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill) as her mother that holds her to a different standard than her other daughter. It’s an effective film for a lot of reasons, not the least is its look into a loss of innocence from multiple points of view.
This plays on television quite often so keep your eye out for this one – it’s rare to find a film so assured and unexpected.