Smooth Talk (Joyce Chopra, 1985)
This just might be a case of near perfect execution. Smooth Talk is so well structured and balanced that it achieves a permanent forward momentum that never flinches or stalls. It pulls you in with a deceptive hypnotic tug until it’s too late to escape and you’re left stranded, feeling just as curious, confused and frightened as Laura Dern’s character Connie. It’s a meticulously crafted puzzle with one very important piece intentionally left missing. That oh-so-important strand of ambiguity is not what makes the film great, but rather what certifies it as an intelligent and challenging examination of sexual adolescence, as seen through the eyes of a rebellious teenage girl. Although to read the film in such a distinct and frankly limited context may be a misstep, for it seems to derive itself from such a wide range of genres that interpretation is consequently left wide open. Even in the beginning, as we get to know the characters through seemingly innocent scenarios, something feels amiss. You can call it a rabbit hole, an hour-glass or Wonderland, but the idea remains the same; Connie is entering an unfamiliar world without even a remote understanding of what she is getting herself into. This idea is accentuated to an almost surreal degree through the handling of the male characters. They are portrayed as bizarre caricatures, aggressive, overpowering and villainous. Just as we’d expect to find in a horror film their faces are often hidden, obscured, or only shown from behind. As with any exploration into a foreign world, things appear daunting and perverse, coming out of nowhere and from all directions. This manipulation of perception creates a threatening vibe that feels unstoppable as we too are locked into the ominous descent.
I’ve always been a fan of Laura Dern and her performance here is extraordinary. One of the best in her career and all at such a young age; she really stands strongly as a powerful centre for the film. The supporting cast also fit very neatly, especially Treat Williams who plays his symbolic manifestation of a character as smooth and as controlled as humanly possible. He’s disturbingly charming for a predator. Visually the film takes a slow and simple approach and is all the better for it. Not only are we given ample time to soak in each gorgeous and full tableau vivant, but I find it also helps the events and people feel more natural and deliberate, as they are allowed to unfold unrestrained and not under threat of being cut or trimmed. This also grounds the film in reality, adding to the overall feeling of unease and danger. Sexual discovery is certainly the most prominent theme in the film, but it never comes close to being excessive or heavy-handed. Instead it is sprinkled thinly throughout, creating depth and nuance. Connie is not simply thrown in at the deep end to be traumatised, her descent spans over several nights, and each night she chooses to delve further into the unknown, daring herself to overcome inhibitions and seek a hormonal thrill. Her behaviour is destructive in a sense, but at the same time it feels justified, as she is standing up for her own freedom and individuality. There is a complexity revealed through this that few films are able to touch on so accurately. As far as I’m concerned Smooth Talk knows exactly what it is, right down to the last second. The closing scenes left me with plenty to think over and really put the nature of the film itself under scrutiny, which is an admirable conclusion to a film that could have so easily been wrapped up with an overbearing or obvious statement.