Smooth Talk

November 13, 2012

Smooth Talk is an interesting example of the process of adapting a short story into a film. The Joyce Carol Oates story on which it is based—”Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”—spends a few pages summarizing a young girl’s world, then shifts into a hypnotic encounter between the girl and a tough suitor, which takes up the bulk of the story.

The film adaptation spends its first hour detailing that young girl’s world, taking off from the sketchy Oates descriptions and making the world real. Connie (Laura Dern), 15, is passing quickly through the early stirrings of sexual excitement.

She and her girlfriends spend their time at the mall, watching boys, then take the brave step of visiting the local burger hang-out, where all the older kids cruise.

We also see Connie’s home life, in which her mother (Mary Kay Place) unfairly compares the dreamy Connie with her older, steadier sister (Elizabeth Berridge). Father (Levon Helm), a likable guy, doesn’t meddle much in the family’s problems.

All of this is beautifully realized. Tom Cole’s script is sharp in detail: Connie and her friend sitting at the counter of the burger joint, nervously wondering, “Is there, like, a system?” to talking to the boys; the moment when Connie halts a necking session by confusedly blurting out, “Stop it! I’m not used to being so excited!”

The dynamics of the family life are recognizable but free of cliché. The abrasiveness of the relationships is subtly drawn, as civil conversations repeatedly turn sour; it’s as though the family just could not stand being friendly.

The direction, by Joyce Chopra, heretofore a documentary filmmaker, is sensitive and knowing, and she’s gotten a performance from Laura Dern (who previously played the blind girl in Mask) that is every inch the gawky, impulsive, still-adolescent girl.

After this extremely realistic first hour, the film jumps back into the Oates short story. A man named Arnold Friend (Treat Williams) shows up at Connie’s front door when she is left alone at home one afternoon, and persuasively invites her to come out and take a ride in his big gold Pontiac convertible. It is a spellbinding dialogue, which lasts for a half-hour.

The jarring thing is, despite Williams’ wonderfully Brandoesque reading of the role (it’s the best he’s been in a while), this character exists so wholly as a symbol of Connie’s rite of passage, rather than a flesh-and-blood character, that it throws the film somewhat out of whack. It’s fine in the short story, because Oates’s tale is a symbolic exercise anyway; but the film, which has created such a realistic world, demands more than that.

Are we to believe that the encounter is just another of Connie’s “trashy daydreams” (as her mother calls them)? Perhaps. As such, the sequence makes more sense, as the kind of thing a teenager might imagine during a long, solitary spell, when left alone in the house on a stifling hot summer’s day.

In any case, while it gives the film a division of style, the final sequence does not diminish the value of what has come before. Smooth Talk, which was produced under the “American Playhouse” banner (which means, presumably, it will show up on PBS someday), is a memorable work; and in its principal contributors—scriptwriter Cole, director Chopra, and actress Dern—it reveals a trio of keenly observational talents who promise much.

First published in the Herald, November 1985

Chopra did a lot of work in television after this (and continues to do so as a septuagenarian); Cole was a playwright, and her husband. Laura Dern’s next movie was Blue Velvet, and she’s become a monumental American actress since then. But maybe she already was, with Smooth Talk.