As if adolescence weren't hard enough ...
"It's a pretty outrageous idea. Even I was a little put off by it," confesses Mitchell Lichtenstein, the man who wrote and directed "Teeth," a merry and macabre yarn about a suburban teen with an anatomical mutation: vagina dentata, the toothed vagina of ancient myth.
But as Lichtenstein thought about this powerful legend - which he first heard of, fittingly, in a college literature class taught by feminist firebrand Camille Paglia - he realized it "might be fruitful territory for a horror movie."
"Not that `Teeth' is strictly speaking a horror movie," he adds, "but most horror movies deal with a primal fear. And, you know, for men, anyway, apparently there is none more powerful than this."
If "Teeth" - which stars Jess Weixler in a brave, funny and, yes, poignant performance - has aspects of a horror movie, it also fits snugly into the coming-of-age genre and the female revenge fantasy niche. On top of that, it offers a sobering portrait of teenage sexuality, and the trials and tribulations of an innocent girl coping with the aggressive overtures of randy dudes.
"Teeth" had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago, along with another offbeat comic drama featuring a high school heroine grappling with issues of sex and love. That would be this season's indie hit "Juno," of course.
"I actually think that ours is a more realistic depiction of teenage sexuality," Lichtenstein deadpans. And he might be right.
Despite its fantastical premise, one can argue that "Teeth," offers a more pragmatic assessment of adolescent male attitudes toward women than "Juno."
Lichtenstein, 42, grew up in the Princeton, N.J., area and attended the George School in Bucks County, Pa. (And then Bennington College, where Paglia, now at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, enlightened him about the vagina dentata.) An actor-turned-filmmaker, his father was the famous pop art painter Roy Lichtenstein.
"I didn't make a choice not to follow in his footsteps or anything like that," he says, "but painting was just never my passion. There may be an untapped talent there, but I don't intend to tap it."
Surprisingly, when Lichtenstein took "Teeth" to Sundance last year, he ruled out shopping his film to the studio-owned art-house divisions, such as Fox Searchlight and Miramax, because he and his investors were dead-certain the MPAA was going to hand it a prohibitive NC-17 rating, making it commercially unviable. But after a little give-and-take, the MPAA ratings board gave Lichtenstein's movie an R rating.
"They were rooting for it to get an R because they thought it was a cautionary tale and that parents could bring their teenage boys to see it," Lichtenstein says of the MPAA board members who screened his pic. Well, we won't discuss the scene with the severed organ and the rottweiler here.
Lichtenstein says he has all but abandoned his acting career (he had major roles in Robert Altman's "Streamers" and Ang Lee's "The Wedding Banquet," plus lots of episodic TV). Right now he's in preproduction for the planned spring start of his second directorial stab, "Happy Tears." "It's nothing like `Teeth,'" he promises, "except that it is a comedy drama."
He doesn't expect to have as much trouble casting his new film. "Pretty much everyone who came in to read for any part in `Teeth' looked at me like I was nuts," Lichtenstein says.