Smooth Talk (1985)


Future Oscar-winner Laura Dern (Marriage Story) gives her first leading performance in this adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” the story of a fifteen-year-old girl who pursues male attention without considering the potential consequences. Dern’s character, Connie, lies to her family about her whereabouts, ditching the mall for the beach, or the movies for a bar across the street. Connie and her two friends revel in the slightest attention from boys and young men. But when an older man named Arnold (Treat Williams) tells Connie, “I’m watching you,” he makes good on the threat, showing up at her house when no one else is home to coerce her into a car ride.

Smooth Talk is a character study in adolescence, one of the most revealing coming-of-age movies ever made. Director Joyce Chopra devotes the first hour of the film to Connie, giving the audience ample opportunity to step into her shoes, to understand her desires and fears. Connie is more than a teenager driven by hormones. Chopra helps us to see Connie as a stranger in her own home, at odds with her mother (Mary Kay Place) and older sister. It makes the flattery of young men all the more alluring. If you’re the least bit worldly, you can probably tell where Oates’ story is going. But even if you’re as innocent as Connie, Treat Williams’ first appearance as Arnold is an ominous one. As a viewer, you’ll wonder, ‘When’s he coming back into the picture?’ And to that end, Smooth Talk becomes a little like a horror movie as we wait with dreaded expectation.

The final half hour of the film is a stand-off between Dern and Williams. It’s a powerful sequence in both performance and suspense as Williams performs the movie’s namesake to get Dern into his car. He never resorts to violence and Dern never runs, yet he’s no less monstrous, nor she any less victimized. The film’s climax is almost entirely off-screen, the vagueness of which may frustrate many viewers. But the ambiguity makes a powerful statement about the game Dern has unwittingly been playing, one stacked very much against her.

Smooth Talk suggests there doesn’t have to be sexual assault for there to be wrong-doing. The film doesn’t show us what happens between the two characters, only that Williams is satisfied and Dern is remorseful. Is he the Devil, or does he even lay a hand on her? Either way, one girl’s age of innocence is over, and we’re left to wonder how many other girls enter womanhood the same way, with the cruel realization that they never had a chance. Or a choice.

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