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Smooth Talk - The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // R // February 23, 2021
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted March 10, 2021 | E-mail the Author

It's the middle of the summer, and all Connie (Laura Dern) and her friends want is to enjoy their freedom. Connie, Laura (Margaret Welsh), and Jill (Sara Inglis) spend all of their time hanging out at the beach or the mall, talking about and sometimes flirting with boys (or at least pranking each other by flirting on another's behalf). As the summer goes on, Connie and Laura work up even more nerve, sneaking out of the house to go to the hot dog stand where the older kids spend their evenings. Connie's behavior frustrates her mother Katherine (Mary Kay Place), but her attempts to try and talk with Connie devolve into mutual hostility, while Connie's father Harry (Levon Helm) mostly tries to avoid getting involved. Then, while at the hot dog stand, Connie catches the eye of a mysterious man named Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), whose charismatic exterior hides something more sinister.

On the surface, Smooth Talk seems like a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story, about a young woman who has an idea of adulthood that she naturally yearns for, the mother who may have at least some sort of wisdom to impart but doesn't know how to express it, and the dangers inherent in graduating from childhood into the adult world. However, writer/director Joyce Chopra, adapting Joyce Carol Oates' short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," deftly segues the film into something else in its second half, cranking up the emotional intensity of the story until the tension is almost unbearable -- there are horror films that are less nerve-wracking.

To call the first half of the film very good should not be viewed as damning it with faint praise. Chopra elegantly illustrates Connie's sense of alienation, the way she simultaneously feels like an excuse for other people's problems and invisible when she's at home. She tries to talk to her sister, June (Elizabeth Berridge) about an important memory, and June pulls back, in a way that is both instinctively understandable and totally heartbreaking. Connie and her mother attempt to find a connection, even coming close at times, but Katherine reacts to every setback like a personal affront, and her subsequent barbs cause Connie to close back up again. At one point, Connie puts on a record and sings along to it, while Katharine, wistfully, does the same in another room -- so close, and yet so far. Chopra also layers the first half with examples of the fine line between good and bad attention from men, with an older truck driver and overly aggressive boys at the mall falling crossing the line.

The latter ends up laying some of the groundwork for the movie's final stretch, in which Connie is left home alone while her family attends a barbecue. Connie has never spoken to Arnold Friend, but he appears suddenly in his custom car, and asks Connie to go for a ride with him. For almost 30 minutes, Chopra does nothing but watch as Arnold, possessed with an unsettling certainty, explains to Connie with in his skin-crawling, snake-oil, silver-tongued way, that there is nothing she can do to resist him, and Connie goes through a gamut of emotions as she tries to extract herself from his psychological grasp. Williams is a reliable presence in movies, but his performance here is on another level: charismatic and sociopathic in equal measure, completely encased in a bulletproof self-confidence that sucks the air out of the room. Dern, meanwhile, raises to match him; it is hard not to think of her work with David Lynch (or Lynch in general -- specifically Fire Walk With Me) as her curiosity crumbles and she starts to unravel. Chopra completes the air of oppressiveness by emphasizing the way the isolated farmhouse provides no safety. Part of the scene takes place with Williams and Dern on opposite sides of a screen door, a perfect visual metaphor.

Throughout the film, but especially in that closing section, it is consistently impressive how much Chopra evokes using so little. Somehow, this is a film that consistently skews toward suggestion and away from the explicit, and yet the results are some of the most raw and unnerving filmmaking imaginable. She is keenly attuned to her characters' emotional state, drawing a richness from atmosphere and tone. Although the interaction with Arnold Friend feels distinct from the rest of the film in many ways, Chopra maintains a consistency in her approach that makes the movie feel coherent and part of a larger whole. As a debut feature, the film deserves to be ranked among the best of all time, with Chopra's confidence in her own vision cited as an example for aspiring filmmakers.

The Blu-ray
For their Blu-ray of Smooth Talk, Criterion has wisely repurposed Vincent Topazio's stunning theatrical poster artwork, which depicts Dern on her front porch with Williams leaning over her. The one-disc release comes in Criterion's standard Scanavo Blu-ray case, with a striking still from the movie on the reverse of the sleeve, and a "Director Approved" sticker on the plastic wrap bearing the image of Chopra's autograph. Inside the case, there is a hefty booklet, which not only features essays by both Honor Moore and author Joyce Carol Oates, but even goes so far as to reprint the entire Oates short story that the film is based on.

The Video and Audio
Criterion's new 1.78:1 1080p AVC/LPCM Mono presentation of Smooth Talk looks and sounds fantastic. Picture-wise, a healthy grain field is present, colors are crisp and appear accurately saturated, fine detail is excellent, depth is great, and black levels are nicely modulated (with much of the film taking place in high-contrast lighting, with bright sunlight coming in through the windows of a darkened house). Criterion's compression is, as usual, a touch imperfect, but not enough to detract from the overall look. Sound-wise, despite being a mono track, there is an impressive amount of separation between the dialogue and the music, with a crispness and clarity that catches the ear. English subtitles are also provided.

The Extras
Criterion has stacked Smooth Talk with one of their most substantial supplementary packages. First up are three short films by Chopra: Joyce at 34 (27:49, co-directed by Claudia Weill), Girls at 12 (29:57), and Clorae and Albie (36:43). I wrote about Joyce at 34 in my review of Criterion's Blu-ray of Girlfriends -- frankly, I think it's good enough that it could've justified its own Criterion Blu-ray, and it's great that it's now on two of their editions. The other two are great as well, with Chopa again exhibiting such a simple, straightfoward empathy for her subjects. In return, she is rewarded with candid and revealing conversations that have a kind of candidness and are revealing in a way that can't be faked.

Next, we get into a series of interviews. There are two with Joyce Chopra: a new video piece from 2020 (16:58), and an older radio piece from 1985 (29:23). In the new video piece, Chopra talks about becoming a filmmaker, coming up through short films, discussing the shorts included (as well as one other), her relationship with Tom Cole, her thoughts on being referred to as a "woman filmmaker," and what draws her to young women as subjects. A very nice interview. The other piece is more focused on Smooth Talk, with Chopra going into detail about how she ended up working on the project, with the sprawling conversation touching on James Taylor's involvement, Joel Meyerowitz as a touchstone for the cinematography, the film's themes, the cast, the reaction to a screening of the film, the title, and the contributions of producer Martin Rosen. "The Women of Smooth Talk" (56:14) is the first of what are arguably the disc's two centerpiece extras, a discussion from Film at Lincoln Center's New York Film Festival presentation of the 4K restoration, featuring Chopra, Laura Dern, and Joyce Carol Oates, moderated by TCM host Alicia Malone. As is to be expected with the virtual panels, there are a couple of minor technical issues where the participants' comments get cut off or can't be heard, but this wide-ranging conversation has some great insights into the development of the story into a movie and Oates' feelings about these changes, a wonderful story about how Dern was cast and insights into her own process on the film, the casting of and working with Treat Williams, the costumes, and various audience reactions to the movie. This is supplemented by "Joyce Chopra, Mary Kay Place, and Treat Williams" (22:53), which checks in with two other major players in the movie who weren't part of the NYFF panel. Both actors are quite enthusiastic and have great memories of the production. Place talks about how she became involved with the project and filling in Katherine's emotional state, but ends up talking quite a bit about the movie overall and what it captures about young womanhood and the enduring power of the film. Williams discusses various choices, including his approach to the scene, use of the car, the meaning of the numbers on Arnold's car, Chopra's direction, his interpreation of Arnold's exit from the movie, and seeing it again as an adult. Last but not least, there is a piece with production designer David Wasco (18:13), who talks about his work on Smooth Talk. He discusses his interest in filmmaking, his experience on El Norte, how the back-to-back experience of that movie and Smooth Talk created a philosophy for his career, his process (including the benefits and limitations of source material), and his process working with Chopra on the house, the hot dog stand, and the car. Instead of an on-camera interview, the piece lays Wasco's voice over a series of photographs -- not just official stills or behind-the-scenes pics, but scanned reference Polaroids taken during the making of the movie, and also some of Chopra's artistic references, including the aforementioned Meyerowitz photographs, as well as some paintings and other archival materials. These really add to the discussion in a great way, making this one of the most striking pieces on the disc.

The final extra is an audio clip, a reading of the 1966 Life Magazine article "The Pied Piper of Tuscon" (39:15), about serial killer Charles Schmid, a story which inspired Oates to write "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?".

Two original theatrical trailers for Smooth Talk are also included, one for the original 1985 theatrical release, and one for the 2020 restoration.

Conclusion
On paper, Smooth Talk might sound like a conventional coming-of-age story, but first-time director Joyce Chopra uses familiar story beats to create an unforgettable emotional experience, one that gets under the skin and stays there. Her control over atmosphere and mood is unbelievable, and her stars Dern and Williams give some of their best work in service of it. Criterion's new edition of Smooth Talk looks and sounds incredible, and is packed with extras, right down to the complete short story that the movie was based on. DVDTalk Collector's Series.


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