Director: Joyce Chopra
Screenplay by: Tom Cole
Based on a Short Story by: Joyce Carol Oates
Starring: Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place, Treat Williams, Levon Helm, Elizabeth Berridge, Margaret Welsh, Sara Inglis
Country: USA, UK
Running Time: 91 min
Year: 1985
BBFC Certificate: 15

Joyce Chopra is a filmmaker who started out making acclaimed documentaries in the 70s, largely about women in transitional periods of their lives, and later moved into television, where she still largely works today, alongside the odd documentary project. However, in amongst these periods of her long career, she directed two fiction films that once again touched upon her favoured themes of turning points in the lives of women.

The second of these, The Lemon Sisters was somewhat of a critical and commercial failure, which likely had something to do with Chopra’s move away from theatrical film production. However, her debut fiction feature, Smooth Talk had fared better. Whilst it only just made a profit during its limited theatrical run, it won the Grand Jury Prize for drama at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival and picked up largely very positive reviews in the press.

Sadly though, partly due to distribution issues, Smooth Talk never gained much traction on VHS or DVD, so disappeared into obscurity. However, possibly due to Laura Dern’s star reigniting (not that it ever went out) due to some notable roles and her Oscar win a couple of years ago, Smooth Talk was resurrected by Janus Films and screened at the New York Film Festival in 2020, to great acclaim.

The Criterion Collection (a subsidiary of Janus Films) has now followed this up with a Blu-ray release of this remastered print. I got hold of a copy and my thoughts follow.

The film revolves around Connie (Laura Dern), a fifteen-year-old girl who’s fed up with her dull life in a suburban home with her nagging mother (Mary Kay Place), useless father (Levon Helm) and ‘perfect’ older sister, June (Elizabeth Berridge). She longs to get away and regularly sneaks off with her friends to the beach.

Being fifteen years old, she’s also beginning to discover her sexuality and boys are very much the subject of conversation between her and her friends when they hang out at the mall and such. Being a little more mature-looking than the others and very attractive, Connie begins to act on this curiosity, looking for male company at a nearby diner where the older teenagers and young men gather.

Connie’s adventures take a dark turn, however, when a much older enigmatic stranger named Arnold Friend (Treat Williams) arrives at her home when she’s there alone.

I’ve always had a soft spot for coming-of-age films and Smooth Talk ranks up there as one of the best I’ve seen. Chopra’s background in documentaries about teenagers and young women shows on screen, for starters. She also used her personal experiences of bringing up her own teenage daughter prior to shooting the film. This allows for a wonderful naturalism to it all that helps Smooth Talk stand apart from the countless teen movies of the same era that leaned closer to the realm of fantasy or smacked of middle-aged men trying to put a ‘cool’ idealised or heightened projection of high school days on screen.

The performances aid the film’s authenticity too. It was Dern’s first lead role in a feature film and she was cast only a couple of weeks before production began. It’s a good job Chopra found her though as she’s fantastic. She’s so natural on screen, displaying vulnerability and burgeoning sexuality in equal measure, whilst also having a magnetic presence.

Mary Kay Place hadn’t had children at the time but is also wholly convincing as Connie’s slightly overbearing mother. On paper, the character threatens to be unreasonable and unlikeable but Place imbues her with enough humanity and warmth to make her fully relatable and often sympathetic. It helps you appreciate that it’s hard for a parent when a child pulls away from them but there comes a time when they have to.

Treat Williams proves once again that he’s an underrated actor from the era, helping create a character that’s both charismatic, playful and frighteningly threatening.

I wasn’t totally convinced by Levon Helm (who I know better as a member of The Band) as the father though. He seems a bit broad in places, though he still has some nice moments with Dern.

The screenwriter, Tom Cole, must get credit for the film’s various strengths too. He was married to Chopra, so the writing was a collaborative process but, nonetheless, the script is sensitive and subtle, yet rich with depth and nuance.

I also liked how pop music was used in the film. Listening to music is all part and parcel of teenage life (or was to me at least) and Chopra recognises this. James Taylor provided a few tracks and was also the musical director, so the soundtrack has his stamp on it. Chopra was a friend of his, which helped get him on board this low-budget production.

The film takes a sharp turn in the final third, when Arnold enters the scene. Due to this, I’ll be heading into vague, but not total spoiler territory until the last paragraph. So anyone wanting to go in cold might want to skip ahead.

Smooth Talk is based on a short story by Joyce Carol Oates. The near-half-hour conversation between Connie and Arnold at the end of the film comes almost directly from this but the bulk of the rest of the film that comes before is something created for the screen. The very end is changed too, with Oates’ chilling denouement switched for a still-dark but strangely empowering one in Cole and Chopra’s adaptation.

Though the Arnold sequence is a powerful diversion from what has gone before, it doesn’t awkwardly clash with it as I’d heard some suggest in reviews online. It has slightly far-fetched aspects to it but, in essence, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. In fact, Oates based the Arnold character on a murderer she’d read about in a Life magazine article.

Due to the unusual behaviour of Arnold, his out-of-the-blue appearance and detailed knowledge of Connie’s life, many viewers believe the ending is a dream and I felt that might have been the case myself but Chopra says it’s supposed to have definitely happened to the character.

Backing up Chopra’s statement, despite the stranger qualities of the final act, the extended scene can also be seen as reality finally hitting Connie. Here is a man that is offering everything she’s been longing for but now she’s face to face with it, she realises it’s dangerous and frightening. This switches something on in Connie, leading to her bold, final character shift.

Overall, Smooth Talk is a perfectly realised, sensitive coming-of-age drama with an audacious, enigmatic final act. Beguiling, unique and beautifully made, it’s a gem that deserves much more attention.

Film:

Smooth Talk is out on 26th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The transfer is largely very nice, with a fairly heavy but natural grain and a detailed picture. There were a couple of strangely soft and extra grainy shots though. Perhaps these were ‘punched in’ shots or the negatives were lost for the restoration though. The audio is spot on.

DIRECTOR-APPROVED BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
– New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director Joyce Chopra, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– Conversation among Chopra, author Joyce Carol Oates, and actor Laura Dern from the 2020 New York Film Festival, moderated by Turner Classic Movies host Alicia Malone
– New interview with Chopra
– New conversations between Chopra and actors Treat Williams and Mary Kay Place, moderated by Malone
– New interview with production designer David Wasco
– KPFK Pacifica Radio interview with Chopra from 1985
– Joyce at 34 (1972), Girls at 12 (1975), and Clorae and Albie (1975), three short films by Chopra
– Audio reading of the 1966 Life magazine article “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” which inspired the short story by Oates
– Trailers
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by poet and memoirist Honor Moore, a 1986 New York Times article by Oates about the adaptation, and Oates’s 1966 short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

The solo interview with Chopra sees the director discussing how she got into filmmaking, her early shorts and how these helped inform Smooth Talk. It’s a wonderful piece that also discusses the sexism inherent in the film industry.

The archive audio interview with Chopra is illuminating too, with the interviewer digging deep to discuss Smooth Talk with the director. He can get a little overly gushing with his questions but it elicits some fascinating answers.

The Zoom with Chopra, Oates and Dern is also a valuable piece. I find these film festival group Zoom conversations can be a little too back-slap-heavy but, whilst this has its fair share of praise, there is still a great deal of insight into the making of the film and the short story.

The Zoom with Chopra and actress Mary Kay Place and Treat Williams is equally as essential. The two actors each talk in-depth about their characters and approach.

The short documentaries, which each run somewhere close to the half-an-hour mark, are superb and probably my highlights of the set. You could just release them together on their own, to be honest, they’re that good. I’ve actually seen Joyce at 34 already, as it was included on Criterion’s Girlfriends disc, due to it being co-written by Claudia Weill. I’ll repeat my thoughts on that here – Joyce at 34 is a refreshingly frank look at the issues of becoming a mother and how it affects one’s life. There are some engrossing debates within it, making for an exceptional film.

Girls at 12 honestly and sensitively captures the essence of girls on the cusp of becoming teenagers. There is also some commentary on the division between the sexes in American society at the time. Though its subjects are a little younger than Connie, you can still see how the experience making the short must have influenced Smooth Talk. There are even several direct nods I noticed in there.

Clorae and Albie follows two young black adult women, making the three films feel like a form of trilogy about the lives of women from birth to adulthood. Clorae and Albie are very open to Chopra, discussing their lives, problems and regrets. Once again it paints an eye-opening portrait of life in America in the 70s as a woman, this time with an added racial divide spin (though this aspect is only subtly present). One of the women is a single working mother who’s going back to school and she talks about her aspirations. The other is a college student whose work we follow. It’s another beautifully observed documentary from Chopra.

The interview with production designer David Wasco is well worth a look too. He went on to work on several major films after this, including a number of films for Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, before eventually winning an Oscar for La La Land. He talks about his beginnings in the industry as well as his approach and inspirations for his work on Smooth Talk. It helps you appreciate the detailed and incredibly important job of the production designer on a film.

The reading of the Life article that inspired the short story is a chilling account of a man who was believed to have groomed and murdered several teenage girls. It takes some surprising turns as it moves on too, making for compulsive yet disturbing listening.

I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet, unfortunately.

So, this is a wonderful collection of extra features that thoroughly explore Smooth Talk whilst also offering up an hour-and-a-half’s worth of excellent documentaries that fit the theme of the film on top of being from the same director. I can’t recommend this release enough. It’s the surprise of the year, for me, so far.

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Smooth Talk - Criterion
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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