Deep into the night.
Blue velvet push.
Cut glass crystal.
I mean it means so much.
— James Taylor, “Limousine Driver”
What if my eyes were brown?
— Connie (Laura Dern), Smooth Talk
“She’s using hairspray. She hasn’t even had her breakfast yet.” Poor Katherine (Mary Kay Place). At 15, her daughter Connie (Laura Dern) is typically eager to find her way out of what she sees as a stifling childhood — a house with peeling paint and a screen door, a small yard at the end of a long, country driveway. So she saunters into the dining room one morning near the beginning of Smooth Talk, wearing a little pink robe, with her blond hair coiffed and face made up. And her mother can only look on, then complain, loudly but ineffectually, to her friend on the phone.
Written and directed by Joyce Chopra — and at long last released to (no-extras) DVD — Smooth Talk won the Grand Jury Prize at 1985’s Sundance Film Festival (then called the U.S. Film Festival), an early instance of the Festival’s appreciation for challenging films. Representing Connie’s rebelliousness and confusion, the movie is controversial on a number of levels, not least because it leads to trauma but ends with neither unraveling nor punishment. Instead, it explores the utter thrill, pain, scariness, and sadness of sex, as a young girl experiences it.
The film is delicate and smartly observant of girl culture, particularly through its first hour or so. Connie and her friends, Laura (Margaret Welsh) and Jill (Sarah Inglis), first appear on screen as a tangle of long, tanned limbs. They’ve fallen asleep at the beach, and as the credits roll, Connie starts awake, the sky gray and the hour late. “Oh my god! Look at the time!” They leap to their feet and dash across the rocky seashore, leaving the camera behind. “My mother’s gonna kill me.” Running as a group, towels and bags flopping as they rush to an appointed meeting, they take a ride in a pickup truck, whose driver smiles so he looks slightly grim. Though they know this decision isn’t precisely right, they also figure that, with three of them, they can manage this guy’s crass come-ons. And so, when they make their way home, safely, they’ve gotten away with a risk, a small one, again.
On Connie’s return, Katherine (who wryly says of her daughter’s willful pretense, not to acknowledge her, “The mysterious case of the invisible mother”) asks what she bought at the mall where they were supposed to be. Connie lies reflexively. All they saw was “polyester junk,” she says, averting her eyes, “There was nothing to buy.” Her mom remembers and understands her naïve desires, fears and resents her evasions, but she wants to save her too. “I look at you,” she sighs, “I look right in your eyes, and all I see are a bunch of trashy daydreams.” As Connie will later note, in a version of self-defense, her mother has her own history of bad decision-making, but that only makes Katherine more worried, because she knows costs and anticipates anguish.
Connie spends her summer before sophomore year in high school engaged in various girlish activities: resisting efforts by her dad (Levon Helm) to “talk”; at odds with her older, “angelic” sister (June, played by the terrific Elizabeth Berridge); at the mall (giggling and verging on screechy, annoying the pert ladies who shop for briefcases and leather handbags); at the movies (not wanting to see the nice movie, but not supposed to see the scary one where older boys go); and at the local hamburger joint, where kids with muscle cars flirt and play the jukebox. Here, Connie spots and is spotted by the ignominiously named Arnold Friend (Treat Williams) (“That’s my real name and that’s what I wanna be to you: a friend.”) He leans on his Pontiac and points his finger at her, waiting until she turns, briefly, to notice him as well: “I’m watchin’ you,” he announces, his dark glasses huge on his face and his button-down shirt tucked neatly inside his tight jeans.
As he inhabits a movie based on a Joyce Carol Oates short story (“Where Am I Going? Where I Been?”), Arnold is all kinds of metaphor. Along with the vaguely smarmy, small town tough costume, he’s got a car emblazoned with his name and a beer can with Hermes-style wings, and an unnervingly smooth line. Arriving unannounced at Connie’s screen door one afternoon while her family has gone off to a barbeque, he asks, “Am I late?” Connie’s imagining she’s confident, having just endured a night of heavy petting with a slightly older boy, then put off her mother’s insinuations that she might be “dumb” enough to get “knocked up.” Feeling alone and even a little bit freed in the empty house, Connie is nonetheless unprepared for her visitor. When he leans into the doorway and starts talking, she’s afraid, intimidated, and intrigued. “That’s why I’m so specially nice,” he coos at her. “I come along just when you need a friend. And I’ll come inside you where it’s all secret and I’ll whisper…” Connie cuts him off: “Shut up. You’re crazy. People don’t talk like that.”
She’s right. People don’t. And this is what makes Arnold so awful and so irresistible. The character has been read as the embodiment of sin, corruption, experience, the incarnation of sex. That the movie makes Arnold simultaneously creepy and charming, ugly but recognizably seductive is its most courageous and troubling choice. It’s easy to make sex bad or even magically romantic. As Connie hides in the shadow behind the stairway, hoping he’ll just go away, Arnold stands in the back of the frame, patient. “The place where you came from ain’t there anymore,” she tells her. “The place you had to go to is cancelled out. This place you’re in now, inside your daddy’s house, it’s just a box. It’s just a cardboard box. There’s nothing for you.” And here, he’s wrong. She has herself.