Tall, skinny, blond and lonely, Connie wants to meet someone and go somewhere. Where really doesn’t matter, and who she doesn’t know yet — maybe someone who looks like James Dean and sings like James Taylor. She’s only 15, so there’s a lot Connie hasn’t worked out yet. Including pickup lines, which she rehearses in the bathroom mirror. But the mirror never talks back, never throws her a curve. The real world isn’t nearly as kind.
Released in 1985, Smooth Talk — restored and released on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection — is all about navigating those curves. When Connie (Laura Dern) spends the day at the mall with her two friends, she either flirts with every boy she passes or teases her friends about them. She’s the most outgoing of the three, dressing to impress and going weak at the knees when the right guy smiles back. But when the wrong guy suddenly intervenes, things go from sweet to sour with the snap of director Joyce Chopra’s fingers.
Poet Honor Moore calls Smooth Talk “a harbinger of the #MeToo movement, an early challenge to a cultural silence now broken wide open.” Moore’s essay, included in Criterion’s set, connects the dots with Smooth Talks’ source material: Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” and the 1966 Life article that inspired Oates, “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” about serial seducer/killer Charles Schmidt.
Though there are moments that give you a sickening sensation in your stomach, there’s nothing in Smooth Talk as rough as those two prose pieces. Chopra and screenwriter Tom Cole leave out the murder and focus on Connie’s home life, particularly the relationship with her mother, Katherine (Mary Kay Place). Like some mother/daughter relationships, they used to be close, but now they are constantly at odds. At this point in her life, Connie’s only wish is to not turn out like her mom. If only she knew how alike they are.
These scenes set you up for the loss of what’s to come once Arnold Friend (Treat Williams) arrives. You know his name’s Arnold Friend because it’s painted on his gold Pontiac LeMans. “Arnold Friend,” he tells the tongue-tied Connie when he shows up on her driveway. “That’s my real name, and that’s what I want to be to you: A. Friend.” Connie laughs nervously: “Do I know you?”
She does: They first crossed paths outside Frank’s roadside hamburger stand. With his sleeves-rolled-up, his shirt unbuttoned down to his diaphragm, his hair coiffed, Friend looks like the sort of guy Connie hopes will come and whisk her away from this sleepy suburban town. But a subtle brass sting under the music as Friend first spies Connie says otherwise. The man is up to no good.
Though Smooth Talk won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and garnered positive reviews upon release, the movie died at the box office. But good work never truly vanishes, and 30-plus years later, Smooth Talk finds its receptive era.