Based on the short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been", by Joyce Carol Oates, this film chronicles 15-year-old Connie's sexual awakening in the Northern California suburbs. Her experimenting begins to get out of hand when the mysterious Arnold Friend takes an interest in her.
Smooth Talk (1985) film notes by Tova Gannana
Smooth Talk (1985) begins in nature. Water lapping at the shore is the first sound. Three girls lie on a blanket at the beach. The sun is setting. They’ve fallen asleep. The boom box by their side is silent. Above them gulls call and screech. They realize they are late. “My mother’s going to kill us,” one of them screams as they run with their belongings to the road. The asphalt beneath their feet. They stick out their thumbs and take the first ride. The man in the pickup turns out to be mostly harmless. He drops them off at the mall where they are supposed to have been all afternoon. When you are fifteen you can’t do what you want to do. Or you find a way to do what you want without your parents knowing. Life is both following house rules and taking a chance when you see one. The girls are allowed to spend their days inside at the mall; the beach is thought to be dangerous. Smooth Talk feels like at any moment something bad will happen.
The mall is where the girls get dropped off. Where they put on makeup at one of the department store counters, introduce themselves to teenage boys, and see a movie. Their mothers send them there because they believe inside at the mall the girls will be contained. At the mall the girls feel independent. They run into a fancy store making noise only to be kicked out. They follow male shoppers around hoping for something like attention. When they get it they change their minds.
Their outings go their way until the adult world gets involved. Two men corner them and tell
them just what they would like to do with them. The men, obviously perverts, are easy for the
girls to spot. It’s the less obvious perverts who the girls aren’t able to recognize and the
situations they get into that they don’t know how to navigate.
Film critic Vincent Canby wrote in his review of Smooth Talk (1985) about, “the high, thin
clouds that always seem to be neutralizing the light but not the heat of the Marin County summer sun.” There is nothing neutral about what takes place on the ground in Smooth Talk. Everything in Connie’s (Laura Dern) world feels personal. Everyone feels like a menace. Her dour older sister June (Elizabeth Berridge) lives at home, is her mother’s pet, has never loved or been loved romantically and resents Connie when Connie shares with her that she has. Her angry and melancholic mother Katherine (Mary Kay Place) who spends her days doing house work, feels invisible to Connie and compared to Connie. Her father Harry (Levon Helm) gone during the day, is a dreamer like Connie. In the evenings he sits outside and smokes on the porch. He doesn’t give her guidance. Her friends Laura (Margaret Welsh) and Jill (Sara Inglis) do dangerous things with her like hitchhike. They cross the highway to hang out at the drive-in where older teenagers and young adults cruise in cars and make out. One of these nights Laura leaves Connie without a ride home. Connie cries in the phone booth to Laura and then walks back by herself on the dark country road. They can’t drive themselves; they can’t ask for help. They fear getting into trouble and living a boring life.
Jill decides to spend the rest of the summer alone. She isn’t searching for her reflection in the
world like Connie who is as unsure of herself as the world seems to be determined to be sure of her. “Leave me alone, get off my back, you know you’re always at me,” Connie tells her mother one morning. What Connie means is that she doesn’t want to be defined or completed. Her mother too wants to be left alone. She doesn’t want to be bothered by Connie growing up. Connie to her mother is trouble because she is pretty, though through no fault of her own. “I look at you. I look right into your eyes and all I see are a bunch of trashy day dreams,” Katherine tells her daughter. Then leaves her to go do house work. The house is where Katherine puts her attention. She paints the walls with longing brush strokes. She holds wallpaper up in examination, in curiosity if the pattern will fit the room. June is an easy daughter; her opinions and actions are meant to please. June plays cards with her parents, and teaches at the high school. No one asks questions of Connie; they only give directions. When Connie is out of the house she makes decisions. She looks across the highway at the drive in and says to her friends, “want to go over?” Mostly she is lucky. Luck runs out.
The character Connie Wyatt comes from the Joyce Carol Oates short story, Where Are You
Going, Where Have You Been? (1966), which is based on the true crime story of “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” a man who murdered teenage girls because he wanted to know what it felt like to, “snuff out a life.” Oates wrote that is was “not after all the mass murderer himself who intrigued me, but the disturbing fact that a number of teenagers—from “good” families—aided and abetted his crimes.” In Smooth Talk the parents try to warn their daughters but their own lives overshadow their concern. They are busy being adults and believe what they say will be listened to. Connie, as Oates wrote her, has two ways of being, “Connie-at-home, and there is Connie-with-her-friends. Two fifteen-year-old girls, two finely honed styles, two voices, sometimes but not often overlapping.” She does this on purpose to survive. Her desires are not trivial though to an adult they would seem to be. The adult women are unhappy everywhere. Laura’s mother drives her station wagon without a smile. Facing forward we see only her profile. As though she is anonymous. Maybe she feels anonymous. Connie’s father is happy to own his own house and land. That is his dream. He tells Connie, “Who’d a thought I’d be out here, smoking a cigarette on a summer night. Don’t owe nobody nothing. Know what I mean?” She shrugs looking out into the dark. “I guess,” she answers. What is Connie’s dream we don’t know because she doesn’t know. Connie, as Oates wrote her, is a maiden obsessed with her own vanity. “I can’t wait til I’m old enough to drive,” she tells her father and goes inside. “The Pied Piper” shows up in Smooth Talk wearing cowboy boots and driving a gold colored convertible. Connie gets in his car just like she does in Oates’ story. Twenty years later, in the film, Connie talks back to him.
Smooth Talk, like it’s source material, feels as though danger lurks behind every switchback on the mountain trail, as though any driver on the road may lose control. The girls inhabit their bodies, but because they are young and unsure they don’t own them. This is what feels so dangerous. The world around them seems to be saying, when you are older you can say no. Then no one will be asking anyway.
Tova Gannana writes for the Seattle Art Museum Film Department and CSA Hitchcock.