Smooth Talk (1986): Joyce Chopra’s Directing Debut, Disturbing Tale of Sexual Awakening, Starring Laura Dern and Treat Williams

Like Penelope Spheeris, Joyce Chopra’s early work was in documentaries: A Happy Mother’s Day, Medal of Honor Rag, a Vietnam play which she produced for television, and Joyce at 34, shot during an on-camera pregnancy.

Chopra made her feature debut with Smooth Talk (1986), a disturbing tale of sexual awakening based on Joyce Carol Oates’ story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” The film deals with the painful transition–the muddle of emotions–that separates girlhood from adulthood.

Oates’s story was written in 1966, but the movie (co-written by Chopra and Tom Cole) takes place at present, amidst the emerging shopping mall subculture.

At 15, Connie Wyatt (Laura Dern) displays both naivet and flirtatiousness, irritating shallowness along with poignant vulnerability. Spending the summer lazing around her house, she finds the monotony of her life oppressive. She can’t bear talking to her overly concerned mother (Mary Kay Place) or pathetic older sister June (Elizabeth Berridge), who won’t stop nagging her. Connie leads a double life: At home, she is gawky and lazy, but with her friends she’s lively. She really comes to life at the mall; her forays with her mates exhibit giddy-girlish high jinks.

Connie is an insecure adolescent on the verge of becoming a sexual woman. With an almost perpetual nervous smile on her face, she begins to realize her sexual power over men. Chopra keeps Connie front and center, showing her misery and confusion, lust and anguish–above all, curiosity and excitement about sex. Her dreams of boys looking at her come true when she meets a glib seducer, A. Friend (Treat Williams) at a drive-in. “A. Friend,” as he introduces himself, isn’t 18, as he tells Connie, but closer to 30.

A psychopath, who hangs out with the kids in town, A. Friend (Arnold) terrorizes her until she agrees to go for a ride with him. When Connie begs Arnold not to talk dirty to her, she represents every girl who knows she has gone too far but can’t stop it. In what’s one of the longest, most startling seduction scenes in American film, Connie walks to the seducer’s car with the dreamy fatalism of a sleepwalker. The emotional effect of the scene derives from the vagueness of the man’s identity as well as his reading of Connie’s burgeoning fears and desires.

Almost to the end, Chopra and Cole are faithful to the spirit of the story, though they have altered the narrative balance. Oates skips through the sketchy background of an empty-headed, pleasure-seeking teenager, but in the film she is endowed with more emotional shelter. As Andrew Sarris noted, Oates looks down on her yearning protagonist–the bulk of the story consists of a verbose seduction of a girl by an older guy with a menacing style of smooth talk.

The movie’s first part is so convincing that the shift in tone at the climax comes as a shock. At the last minute, Smooth Talk takes a benevolent turn that leaves the audience baffled. Though Oates public ally embraced the entire movie, the new ending is a betrayal. The tacked-on happy coda–the stoical resignation and reconciliation between Connie and her family–drain the narrative of its sense of horror.

Despite these deficiencies, Smooth Talk renders a precise definition to a very particular American existence: The lower middle class family, headed by an easygoing, distant Daddy (Levon Helm) and an overconcerned mother. The family interludes, like the mall scenes, are perceptively written and acted. Chopra’s loose style, however, lets some crucial scenes wander in a tempo, which some critics found draggy.

Smooth Talk is mostly remembered for the performance of Laura Dern, then 18, who brought a sense of danger to the tough role of the sexually voyaging siren. Dern’s sexuality and intelligence were in sharp contrast to Molly Ringwald, the other popular teen actress at the time, who also made coming-of-age movies (Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink). Dern went on to become a quintessential figure of the new indie cinema, starring in such movies as Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Citizen Ruth, and perhaps most interesting of all, Rambling Rose, directed by Martha Coolidge.