Directed by Joyce Copra; Written by Tom Cole
Straightforward until it turns surreal, Joyce Copra’s coming-of-age-in-a-horrible-way story Smooth Talk doesn’t feature smooth talk, but rather its opposite in rough action, offering Laura Dern a tantalizing podium to announce herself to the world.
She’s Connie, a 15-year old rapidly growing into the body of someone much older, jutting half a foot above her friends who are childlike still in appearance. They’re hitting the age where boys are interesting and playacting at sexuality is intriguing. Innocent enough on its own, but problems start arising when Connie attracts the attention of a certain type of man who belongs in a much less innocent kind of world.
In Tom Cole’s script, based on Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”, this world comes out at night. Much of its opening sees Connie and friends at the usual daylit haunts for teens off for the summer: at the beach, the mall (it’s the 80s, of course they’re at the mall) until Connie and her more game friend spot a roadside diner serving franks, beers, ice cream and a meat market to peruse. It’s here those slightly older boys hang, leaning on their car, hard-on energy keeping them rooted at the entrance so they can give everything that moves the up-and-down, like auctioneers at a cattle call.
Copra directs the first half with a one-track mind, detailing the sexual titilation and its quagmires quickly. Connie’s anatomy is accentuated, the ritual of dressing a certain way is observed with devotion, the charged interactions are obvious from the get-go. Two minutes in, we see the three friends hitch a ride with a middle-aged man, who doesn’t need to say much to make clear what he’s getting out of it, letting his eye wander a little too easily and a smile that takes an unwholesome shape.
Copra’s direction is as sophisticated as the pick-up lines thrown Connie’s way by her suitors, and it’s effective until the action starts dealing with interpersonal relationships. Connie’s home life is fraught due to a strained relationship with her mother, who has suddenly seen the daughter grow into a young adult who bristles at any mention of how young they used to be, five minutes ago. The worst you can do is try to infantilize them. Mary Kay Place’s performance does little to humanize this frustrated and alienated mother, doubling down on shrill anger, kept flickering by a short fuse, but Copra doesn’t give her many chances to feel anything else. The 80s pop soundtrack also turns these moments schmaltzy like cotton candy.
Laura Dern, however, gets to shine, straddling perfectly that emotional and physical divide of her age, where she’s keen to be seen and admired as a woman, but too full of child-like energy to not run around the mall in giddy excitement at all the stimulus. The gauntlet of emotions she has to run through going from bright-eyed and excited to mortified at the lessons she learns the hard way sees Dern grow up before our eyes.
Her performance as Connie, combined with her performance as Sandy in Blue Velvet, released only a year later, stand out as one of the finest double-acts in detailing the American suburb’s loss of innocence. On her shoulders, Smooth Talk, with its gut-punch third act, feels evermore punctual now 35 years later, and one wonders how it would have landed had the first half of the film not danced around to the happy sounds of 80s synth before Copra turns on the lights to show us who was really there in the dark all along.