‘Smooth Talk’ (1985) revisited

❉ An appreciation of Laura Dern’s first lead role in a movie, directed with sensitivity and grace by Joyce Chopra.

“Never cheap or cloying or overly sentimental, this film looks at its characters with intelligence and confidence, and never settles for the easy way out in any instance.”

Smooth Talk is one of the greatest adolescent coming of age stories I’ve seen. It’s mystifying how this film doesn’t have a higher profile. Released for one week in theaters in 1985 after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and loosely based on the short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates, the film stars a then-18 year old Laura Dern, playing a 15 year old girl on the forefront of her own blossoming sexuality, unaware of the power that she holds over men, and too naïve to understand the dangerous consequences of her seemingly innocent actions. Dern, one of our greatest actresses for the last thirty years, is marvellous in the film, giving a performance that becomes all the richer when put into her own personal context as a human being.

Here, at 18, she was asked to think like a 15 year old, which was only three years separated from her while she was shooting, thus presenting an intimate opportunity to potentially relive aspects of her own youth via cinematic artifice. Tom Cole’s screenplay adaptation skilfully depicts a family unit becoming fractured due to the stresses of growing up, and how shifting attitudes between mother and daughter can create friction and abrasive moments of personal interaction. Never cheap or cloying or overly sentimental, the film looks at its characters with intelligence and confidence, and never settles for the easy way out in any instance.

Her mother, played by Mary Kay Place in an extremely heartfelt performance that mixed equal parts exasperation and love, doesn’t know what to do with her daughter, instead focusing more effort on her first born child, while her husband, the casually aloof Levon Helm in a sadly hilarious performance, is so out to lunch as to never potentially understand the mindset of a teenaged girl, let alone his own daughter’s complicated development. Directed with sensitivity and grace by Joyce Chopra, who would go on to helm the epic disaster The Lemon Sisters in 1990, the film’s narrative moves into some seriously disturbing territory during the final act, when extra-sleazy Treat Williams shows up in an astonishing performance of seductive menace, portraying a man at least ten years older than Dern, and who is looking for nothing remotely good at all.

The final moments are devastating in their emotional and psychological implications, and Chopra’s decision to remain visually ambiguous during one key sequence was a bold and brave move, asking the audience to do the heavy lifting rather than being overt or explicit with her storytelling. James Glennon’s lyrical and poetic and summery cinematography perfectly meshed with Dennis Wasco’s evocative production design, while the score by Russ Kunkel and Bill Payne, featuring a few tracks from James Taylor including the subtly devious selection of Handy Man during a key cathartic moment, present a chilling sonic alternative to the more customary or expected melodic notes you’d expect from this sort of film. The Criterion Collection released a special edition Blu-ray & DVD of the film on February 23, 2021, and there’s a DVD also available for purchase in the UK from classicfilmsdirect.com as well as a streaming option on Amazon Prime.

❉ ‘Smooth Talk’ (1985) Director: Joyce Chopra. Cast: Laura Dern, Treat Williams, Sarah Inglis, Elizabeth Berridge, Levon Helm, Mary Kay Place. Approx. running minutes 88m.

❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.

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