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Simon Boccanegra

Smooth Talk (1985)

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Presently available on the Criterion Channel (as well as in a new Blu-ray on their label), this is an adaptation, expansion, and 1980s update of Joyce Carol Oates's harrowing, much-anthologized 1966 story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" from director Joyce Chopra and screenwriter Tom Cole. It was acclaimed, then mostly forgotten and long difficult to find, but it has recently been remastered and is being reconsidered as a lost classic. 

It has a sensational breakthrough performance of great range and texture from 18-year-old Laura Dern. She had appeared in big films such as Teachers and Mask but was headlining a movie for the first time. She was playing three years younger, as a Northern California girl named Connie who is becoming sexually curious in the summer between her freshman and sophomore years.

Connie has an imperfect though far from tragic home life in a big, symbolically unfinished house with a loving but nagging mother (an excellent Mary Kay Place), a sweet but clueless father (rock great Levon Helm, whose unschooled acting is well used), and a responsible, seemingly frigid older sister (Elizabeth Berridge, Mrs. Mozart in Amadeus) to whom she is unfavorably compared.

Connie and two girlfriends regularly lie to their parents about their evening plans and spend hours cruising the mall and a local hamburger joint, where they don heavy makeup and sexier outfits and flirt with boys. While they enjoy the male attention, they are not ready and willing for everything it could lead to. The three men with whom we see Connie in one-on-one time in the film are, disturbingly, progressively older. Even the first and youngest of the three, played by the boyish-looking William Ragsdale (of that same year's Fright Night), is said to have graduated high school already.  

About halfway through, Connie has an ugly fight with her mother and refuses to go with the family to a barbecue at a relative's far-away house. While she is home alone, she is visited by a handsome man claiming to be 18 but clearly much older, who calls himself Arnold Friend (Treat Williams). We had already seen him staring at her in town from behind his sunglasses, and now he shows up in a big gold controvertible. He has James Dean affectations and has brought along another man as a mostly mute accomplice. A. Friend knows far too much about Connie, including her family's present whereabouts and the full names of her friends. He wants her to "go for a ride" with him, and his talk is calm, seductive, persistent, and subtly threatening. The accomplice mutters a couple sentences about his ability to disable the phone line. Connie is initially curious and flirtatious, then frightened, but never as much as she should be. Dern's performance here reminded me of a snake's hypnotized prey. 

It's a concise and unusual film. The low-key first half meanders through extremely well-observed and well-acted scenes that serve to establish a girl whose home life is such that she wants to be seen, paid attention to as something special. The characters in Connie's family have an interesting and lifelike way of talking around what they want to say; they never quite land on the words that would get their issues out in the open. One flaw is that the universe in which it is taking place can be distractingly generic. (Example: I've never heard anyone anywhere, in any era, identify a movie by the auditorium number it is playing in at the local cineplex—e.g., "You should see the movie in #3." Seinfeld did this right with its made-up titles.)

Once Connie's family departs, the second half is suspenseful and gripping, with Connie at a symbolic threshold, a fragile screen door away from A. Friend and whatever he and his accomplice have planned for her. Oates's short story ended with Connie terrified into near-catatonia, stepping out of the house and into A. Friend's car. The Oates has been interpreted as both a straight-ahead horror story and in a less literal way, as an allegory for the sixties youth counterculture that was in bloom at the time it was written, with A. Friend as a sort of pied piper. 

The film is different, more hopeful. As menacing as A. Friend remains, he is shaded down a little. If he is to be taken at face value here (and more than one reading is possible), I'm not sure I buy the closing scenes the script provides. But it is easy to understand why this little movie resonates and has been deemed worth another look in our present climate of examination of predatory behaviors. Only the music—songs by James Taylor and an electronic score as ghastly as such things often were in 1985—dates it.

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It's a great movie, and I liked what the script did to expand the story.

I was a teenager about the same time as Connie -- I remember being obsessed with specific songs and movies, dressing up and playing grownup, putting myself in situations where I was risking more than I was aware of in my interactions with much older boys and men, etc.

I'd definitely say that the original Oates short story is a horror story, and that the movie (while gentler and more hopeful in the end) also retains plenty of that horror in A. Friend's confrontation with (and manipulation of) poor Connie.

I have trouble seeing the counterculture analogy for the story, though -- especially the idea that Friend is some kind of Pied Piper, since to me he's clearly implied to be demonic (his boots are even described as not quite fitting him, as if he has hooves). For me the movie is both cautionary tale (be careful what you wish for) and feminist nightmare (how dare Connie incite those feelings in Friend so casually!).

I prefer the movie to the story, not least because we at least get that sense of hope. Connie is older, wiser, and wounded, but she's safe, and there's this palpable sense that she is stronger now.

And I agree that Laura Dern was absolutely terrific, and received much-deserved raves for it.

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