“Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue”
-It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue by Bob Dylan
There used to be a wonderful little website devoted to the Independent Spirit Awards. It not only listed the award’s winners and nominees, but had photographs and shared anecdotes of things that happened at the ceremony each year since the awards started. I don’t know what happened to that site, but it’s where I first heard of Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk, which was nominated for 5 awards, including Best Feature, at the inaugural ceremony.
Adapted by Chopra’s husband Tom Cole from the short story, Where Are You Going To, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates, the film follows 15-year-old, Connie (a perfectly cast Laura Dern), who’s currently out-of-school due to a summer break. Connie is one of the most honest depictions of teenage girlhood anywhere. So many stories with a young adult protagonist insist that they are the smartest/strongest/bravest/boldest/etc. Plus, if that protagonist is a teenaged girl, she must also be incredibly attractive, but totally unconcerned with her looks.
But Connie is concerned. The scenes of her changing into revealing clothing and putting on makeup show are awkward and poignant. Her mother accuses her of having a head filled with “trashy daydreams,” and gives the impression that she was once the same way and that’s why she lashes out at her daughter.
Connie spends her summer vacation like many 1980s teenagers: sunbathing, avoiding chores, and since it’s the height of mall culture, hanging out at the local mall.
Sometimes instead of sticking to the mall, Connie and her girlfriends head to a hamburger stand where they hang out with other kids, mostly older than them. Sometimes they do more than hang out. Both an innocence she tries to conceal and a deep-rooted fear of being out of her depth, make Connie choose boys that are just as young and naïve as she is, and are a safe way for her to explore her burgeoning sexuality. She tells her nerdy older sister June (Elizabeth Berridge), “You don’t understand. I mean, it’s not what you think. I’d never do that. It’s just…the boys are so nice to you. When we’re together…I never knew it was gonna be so nice. Did you ever have a boy hold you close and sing to you? This one boy, Eddie…he sang to me right in my ear. And he held me so sweetly. June, don’t you know how that feels? Just to be held like that?”
Connie, like most teenagers, is convinced that she’s invincible. She thinks that by choosing these boys, it will protect her from the other sorts of boys. I’m reminded of something that Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the 1998 film Whatever, another story of a directionless teenaged girl. He said that the movie, “knows how a lot of kids survive the teenage years through sheer blind luck. Others die or have their lives destroyed because their luck is bad. Most people, I imagine, keep teenage secrets that still make them cringe years later–memories of stupid chances they shouldn’t have taken, and relief that they weren’t caught.”
Connie doesn’t get caught, but is caught. By a mysterious man who claims that his name Arnold Friend (a never- better Treat Williams). Connie caught his eye on her adventures, and when her parents and sister leave for the day, he comes to call.
At first, Connie tried to politely rebuff him the same way she rejects other boys she’s not interested in. Arnold doesn’t fall for it, in part because he’s not an inexperienced boy, but a man. Arnold is charming and is the smooth talker that the title promises, but there’s something off about him. He initially claims to be Connie’s age and dresses and speaks like a teenager, but he’s obviously at least a decade older than her.
The scenes between Connie and Arnold have a fairy tale quality, and clear parallels are drawn between him and the Big Bad Wolf. Except that Arnold is human which makes him scarier than a creature in folklore.
In addition to the song quoted above, Oates said that her story, particularly Arnold, was inspired by Charles Schmid, a serial killer that murdered at least three people in the 1960s and was dubbed the “Pied Piper of Tucson” because he gathered younger friends and girlfriends to help him commit his crimes. Arnold even has his own sidekick: a man named Eddie (David Berridge), who appears to be developmentally disabled.
When he fails to smooth talk Connie into going with him, Arnold lets go of all pretense and outright threatens her. The thirty minute sequence of the two of them facing off is one of the scariest scenes in any movie that I’ve ever seen. He tells her than he will burn down and her family’s home and take her, but leave Eddie, presumably to murder her parents and sister when they return.
In the short story, which was originally called Death and the Maiden, leaves the impression that Connie is murdered by Arnold, going with him to protect her family. In the film, he returns her to her home. While it’s not explicitly shown or stated what transpired, Connie doesn’t appear to be the same person as when she left. In the film’s final scenes, she seems older and more reserved.
Smooth Talk played for exactly one week in limited released and grossed a mere $16,000, before being shown on PBS’ American Playhouse series. Still it lives on, haunting and sinister, and not easily forgotten by those who’ve seen it.