Smooth Talk (1985)

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Beginning as a familiar story of a rebellious teenager pushing against the confines of her family, Joyce Chopra takes us down a dark path that perfectly captures the strength and vulnerability of a young woman.

Set in the sun-drenched heat of an East Coast summer, 15-year-old Connie (Laura Dern) is self-absorbed and impatient to gain freedom from her over-bearing mother Katherine (Mary Kay Place), dutiful sister June (Elizabeth Berridge) and kind-hearted father Harry (Levon Helm). She forgets errands, doesn’t do her chores and sneaks out to hang out in a diner with friend Laura (Margaret Welsh). Her obsession is boys – giggling and flirting with them at the mall, nervously provocative at the diner – and although she is happy to make out with them, giddy with new sensations, she seems too innocent to realise the slippery slope she is on.

Where the story darkens is the appearance of Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), who has watched her at the diner and suddenly appears on the doorstep of her isolated house when she is irrevocably alone. He is 30 and a skilled manipulator, aware of her innocence and able to push every button of insecurity that she has. This extended scene is chilling and beautifully framed, using the supposed sanctuary of the house – porch, screen door, long, dim hallway – to great effect as Connie realises her predicament. Dern is excellent, her coltish frailty returning as her bravado is worn down.

I came in to this film thinking that it was in some way a romance. That’s the tag given it in IMDb and the poster and key promo image accentuate the bond between Arnold and Connie as if somehow they are on an equal footing, her defiant stare to camera indicating her agency.

I have read reviews that talk about this scene as one of seduction. It is so not that. This is one of abuse, with Arnold understanding exactly how to cow and coerce a young women into doing what he wants. I suspect many women will empathise, having been in that moment where you open a door to a stranger or stay in place for fear of escalating violence. Connie, for all her rebelliousness, is a product of an upbringing where she is expected to be amiable and accommodating.

The resolution of this scene is deliberately, and exquisitely, ambiguous – thank you Joyce Chopra for not succumbing to a need to shock. So much so that Laura Dern defiantly spoke up about the meaning of it and only much later, after her involvement in The Tale (2018), realised what had actually happened.

There has been some criticism of the coda that deviates from the short story it is based on, “Where are you Going, Where Have you Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. For me, it was welcomed.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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