Smooth Talk


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Smooth Talk
"It is comforting to keep in mind that the devil cannot cross your threshold without an invitation."

Joyce Carol Oates published her short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? in 1966, the year before Laura Dern, star of Joyce Chopra’s 1985 film adaptation, was born. Watching Smooth Talk (screenplay by Tom Cole) in the Revivals programme of the 2020 New York Film Festival adds yet another turn of the temporal screw to this tale of a teenage girl and her encounter with a recondite man named Arnold Friend (Treat Williams).

Dern’s Connie, a giggly 16-year old when out at the beach or the mall (cinematographer James Glennon lovingly embraces American ugliness, as he will later do in Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt) with her girlfriends Laura (Margaret Welsh) and Jill (Sara Inglis), is more sombre and a different kind of unruly at home with her parents and well-behaved sister June (Elizabeth Berridge). This is rural America and a roadside hotdog stand where the local, slightly older boys hang out on summer evenings is the big attraction. Plus, the girls have to scurry breathlessly across the highway to get there.

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Connie squabbles with her mother Katherine (Mary Kay Place, star of Kent Jones’s award-winning début feature Diane) about lots of things, mostly what’s in her head. “All I see are a bunch of trashy daydreams,” the mother says. The interactions with both parents (the father is played by The Band’s Levon Helm) feel drunk while sober, somehow off, as if wrapped in cotton wool or taking place in a cardboard box. Mom notices that Connie is using hairspray before breakfast, a bad omen. Oates in her story only briefly sketches these dynamics and quickly dives into the confrontation that dominates the second, and much stronger, half of the movie.

Both Laura Dern and Treat Williams (who also gave a great performance as Robert Lowell in Bruno Barreto’s elegant Reaching For The Moon) oscillate between the mundane and the threatening, venturing into Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard territory, only to blush or stretch, respectively, or in some other way, ground us again in a summery, sun-dried Sunday afternoon in a lone-standing family house in the West.

Connie, home alone, while her family is at a barbecue, sees a cloudy-golden convertible drive up to the house. Two men are inside. Arnold Friend and his friend Ellie Oscar (Geoff Hoyle), who wears his shirt collar up and his transistor radio close to the ear. 33-19-17 is printed on the side of the car. "Now, these numbers are a secret code, honey," Arnold Friend says. If you have a bible handy and skip the age of Jesus, you can be the judge how the short story got its name. Chopra’s film does not delve too deeply into the metaphysical, otherworldly, traces Oates scatters about. “One of his boots was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn't in it. It pointed out to the left, bent at the ankle” the short story describes, “[e]vidently his feet did not go all the way down; the boots must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller.”

The A. Friend of Smooth Talk is less Mephistopheles hiding a cloven hoof in his black cowboy boot, than a grinning James Dean knockoff who postures on his car like a serpent, stretching his arms, hypnotising Connie with his voice to come and take a ride with him. “I found out all about you”, he says “you’re special” and “I have saved my whole Sunday afternoon just for you.” He wears the mirrored aviator sunglasses of the cop in Psycho who stops Janet Leigh’s car. He seems to know a lot about what Connie’s family is doing right now at the barbecue in a time long before checking in on their social media postings was a possibility. Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue inspired the Oates story and all its slow-oozing disgustingness casts a spell - the music director of the film is James Taylor.

Dern, who wears a white, very Eighties bathing suit and white shorts during these tense threshold scenes (instead of the bright green shirt in the story), is enthralling and not too far away from where she will lead us in David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet. When the big bad wolf says “You might not ever want to get away,” the cardboard box collapses. It is comforting to keep in mind that the devil cannot cross your threshold without an invitation. Where Oates’ narrative ends, Smooth Talk continues, but leaves us with just as many, if different, open questions.

Reviewed on: 16 Sep 2020
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A free-spirited teenager has an encounter with a dangerous man.

Director: Joyce Chopra

Writer: Tom Cole, based on the story by Joyce Carol Oates

Starring: Treat Williams, Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place, Margaret Welsh, Sara Inglis, Levon Helm, Elizabeth Berridge, Geoff Hoyle, William Ragsdale, David Berridge, Cab Covay, Michael French, Joy Carlin, Mark McKay, Carl Mueller

Year: 1985

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, US

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