The camera is held at a distance in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk, far from the bodies of the characters. This is from the point of view of the outsider, removed from the sweeping emotions and dramatic inclinations of the teenage characters. Dread brought on by insecurity is the overriding emotion, and it draws in tension from the most innocuous situations. Chopra uses this sense of distance to actually draw us deeper into the subjectivity of the film, adjusting us to the adolescent experience of always facing inward.
Smooth Talk is about a rushed sexual awakening as the precocious Connie (Laura Dern) finds herself pulled into adulthood a little too soon. Trying to look older than her age and adopting an exaggerated air of maturity, she relies on boys just a couple years older than she is to bolster her self-esteem. While sexually inexperienced, Connie poses as a girl who knows her way around the backseat of a car. She likes to play games and tease, as this technique works on the boys who don’t know any better.
When Arnold Friend (Treat Williams) enters the picture, though, everything changes. He has a broad jaw, beautiful lips and a sexual body. He begins to infringe on Connie’s world (and her space), looking to capitalize on the promise of her performance as a sexually liberated young woman. Arnold doesn’t follow her games and is confident in what he wants. He is a cross between Marlon Brando and James Dean, an exaggerated image of the ideal white-American male — but Arnold is not presented in a glowing light. He seems forged from something darker and haunts the film like a mythological presence. We never forget he is a predator.
Facing off against each other, much of the film’s final act is a battle of wills. Trapped home alone in the middle of nowhere, a hungry and horny Friend — cool as a cucumber — pushes Connie into a seduction she wants no part of. He is not forcing her by the hand but coercing her using emotional and psychological manipulation. Smooth Talk explores the boundaries between adolescence and adulthood, particularly in relation to female sexuality. Chopra’s work transcends ideas of purity related to sex but focuses in on autonomy. The continued dismissal of Connie’s desire to be left alone is not only a predatory act on her body but a dismissal of her humanity.
Smooth Talk is wispy and simple, almost to the point of being ordinary. It exists somewhere between a sigh and a harsh intake of breath, between words and actions, caught in a world of fragile identity and pervading loneliness. Joyce Chopra’s filmmaking is confident and undeniably feminine, she wills the atmosphere of the film to poetically reflect the struggle of adolescence. There is incredible dignity in the way she affords Connie such a confident and beautiful voice, in spite of her aching insecurity. This is one of the strongest cinematic examples of how men can be predatory without using physical violence, instead relying on intimidation, manipulation and their infringement on women’s personal space.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the former film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.