Sundance Film Fest 2007 (World Premiere)Mitchell Lichtenstein, better known as an actor, makes an impressive feature directorial debut in “Teeth,” a provocative film inspired by the “Vagina Dentata” mythology, and one of the most original entries at this year's dramatic competition.

The “Vagina Dentata” myth has prevailed in many cultures for centuries. As such, it has served as a source of anxieties for men, and as a weapon of empowerment for women.

Part horror film, part feminist fable, part erotic high school yarn, “Teeth” defies easy categorization, which should stir stimulating debate among film critics and viewers. This truly independent film tells the story of a Christian high school girl, caught up in her school's hypocritical “purity campaign.” Brainwashed to save herself for marriage, initially, Dawn (newcomer Jess Weixler in a striking performance) is so innocent that she is not even aware of her anatomy and bodily functions.

By accident, Dawn discovers that she is different, in fact unique. Her vagina has teeth that don't like intruders (to put it mildly). This single attribute–a stigma–makes Dawn deviant, a subject of victimization, but also empowers her in unexpected, significant ways.

The story is set in a quiet American suburb, with a menacing nuclear power plant in the background. Dawn is the leader of a group called “The Promise,” whose members have sworn to abstinence from sex. At first, she is dismissed as harmless by her classmates, that is, until she discovers that she's different from them.

When Dawn meets Toby, they both have to resist the temptation of violating their sacred vows and have sex. One thing leads to another and Toby forces himself onto her in a cave (also a dark, erotic symbol). As a result, Dawn unleashes her genital defense mechanism, and Toby becomes the first in a long series of victims.

As writer, Lichtensein has created a film that operates on several levels, a realistic as well as metaphoric one. As director, he shows impressive skills in tackling a shocking subject that in the hands of other helmers could have easily become titillating and voyeuristic. Aware of the risky material, Lichtenstein seems determined not to succumb to the level of camp, or even horror for horror's sake.

Always intelligent, and often darkly humorous, “Teeth” makes for an intriguing viewing almost up to the end; the last chapters are a tad repetitious. But perhaps what's most admirable about this feature is that it's scripted and directed by a male; I can easily see how this text could have become a feminist academic treatise.

Though satisfying as horror high school yarn, it's the latent meanings of the narrative that makes it so interesting. Specifically, women's approach to their own sexuality, and men's fear of women's potentially insatiable and aggressive sexuality.

The beautiful and sexy Jess Weixler gives a brave, career-making performance in a tough role. She's already been compared by film critics to Kate Winslet (around the time of “Heavenly Creatures”) or Uma Thurman (around “Dangerous Liaisons”). Here, Weixler is utterly convincing as a naive girl who changes radically upon gaining awareness of her special anatomy.

I dont wish to oversell “Teeth,” but suffice is to say, that it's one of the movies that had lived up to its advance buzz at Sundance; the first press and public screenings were a mob scene.

“Teeth” faces the danger of being ignored, simply due to its subject matter, which would be unfair, since it's a bold, smart film that unabashedly tackles issues of sexual politics. Lichtenstein doesn't shy away from “taboo” questions, which turns “Teeth” into something more than just a “curio item” (to borrow jargon from the trade magazine “Variety”).

Usually, actors who become directors focus on the acting, at the expense of the film's narrative and technical aspects. But Lichtenstein, who won the Venice Festival acting prize for his performance in Robert Altman's “Streamers” and is also known for the gay guy he played in Ang Lee's satire “Wedding Banquet,” shows tremendous promise as a director to watch.

“Teeth” provides the expected jolts and unpredictable twists, but it's not another mindless high school horror flick. The film does contain graphic violence, though it takes a whole reel before the horror begins. Lichtenstein weaves a compelling coming-of-age yarn that blends suspense and humor. He knows that a voracious vagina offers occasions for both horror and humor-watch for the visual gags that depict how Dawn's jaws snap.

End Note

Speaking of “Jaws,” Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster: At the time, few film critics perceived the film's monster in specifically female erotic terms, but a recent viewing of the picture encourages and even warrants such reading).