In the classic teen melodrama Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan, 1961), the central conflict arises because Wilma (Natalie Wood) is torn between her desire and social mores. She knows what she wants — she wants sex with Bud (Warren Beatty). But society, represented most strongly in the film by the voice of Wilma’s mother, tells her that not only should she not do what she wants, but she shouldn’t even want it in the first place. She’s a bad girl for wanting.
Twenty-four years later, after the sexual revolution and in the midst of the Reagan era, Smooth Talk (Joyce Chopra, 1985) features another teen girl (Connie, played by Laura Dern) experiencing conflict around her emerging sexuality. Only this time, the divide between the central character’s desire and social repression are not so clear. Connie owns her desire, but it is tangled in a mass of uncertainty and contradictory social messages.
For Connie, these contradictions play out through the spaces of the film, from the mall to the family home to car interiors. Each represents a different aspect of her identity and contain different social pressures.
It’s the summer before sophomore year, and Connie and her friends are learning to perform womanhood and learning that for women desire is both exciting and dangerous. They glam up at the mall, donning accessories and make-up that their parents would not allow, and they teasingly push each other to flirt with young men. The girls laugh and chatter with each other loudly, moving freely and unselfconsciously, looking admiringly at the butts of attractive men.
At one point, Connie leans over an escalator to ogle a group of guys, and Jill says, “Connie, you are a disgrace.” Connie retorts, “But a lot of laughs.”
The beach and the mall are their spaces, particularly the mall, which in the 1980s blossomed into the teen girl hangout spot. In the mall, roaming with one’s friends, seeing and being seen, could be more important than any actual consumer activity. Even when a couple of men menace the girls, they find they are able to laugh off the encounter. After all, the mall is well-lit, public, and with just the right mix of freedom from any adults you know (parents), but containing some supervision by adults you don’t (cashiers and security guards).
Because the mall is a safe space for teen girls, for Connie it represents autonomy. In the mall scenes, she has the freedom to experiment with self-presentation, and at the same time she enjoys the powerful act of looking at men she desires, rather than simply being the object to be looked at.
In keeping with the cinematic tropes of melodrama, Smooth Talk represents the family home as a site of repression. As with Wilma’s mother in Splendor in the Grass, Connie’s mom (Katherine, played by Mary Kay Place) gives voice to social restrictions on women’s sexuality. In an early scene, Katherine watches her daughter dance and sing along to the radio, caught up in the moment. Katherine shakes her head, disapproving, and later in the scene tells Connie, “Look at you. I look right in your eyes and all I see are a bunch of trashy daydreams.”
Though Katherine often seems to pick fights with Connie, the film hints that her impatience with her youngest daughter stems from their similarity. Though Katherine judges Connie for her oblivious dancing in the above scene, at another point in the film, both mother and daughter sing and dance to the same song, though in different rooms and unaware of each other. As the film cuts between them, they throw their heads back and close their eyes, lost in the moment.
Still, Connie’s inability to bridge that gap with her mother turns her family home into a place where Connie feels like an outsider. This is most clearly illustrated in a scene where Connie comes home in the evening and stands outside the window for a moment, watching her parents and sister play cards through the screen. (The screen door will come into play at the end of the film, when Arnold coerces Connie through that same screen to come outside and into his car.) When Connie finally does go inside, her body language is awkward, with her shoulders curving in and her head bent down. She stands to the side, not fully joining the table, feeling like an outsider in her family.
Inside the family home, her innocence is demanded, but also presumed lost. It’s where Connie feels shame and frustration, brought on by the judgment of her mother and older sister.
From the beginning, the film hints at men as a potential threats, centering those threats mostly around cars and escalating slowly to the film’s climax. As Peter Dickinson notes in his research article on Smooth Talk, the car in this film is a male domain, one that Connie initially seeks out, at one point even expressing a wish to have her own car (perhaps as a wish of her own sexual autonomy). It’s significant that aside from maternal figures, the only people in the film who have cars are young men, and those men use their cars to drive young women somewhere for sexual encounters.
At first, this is exciting for Connie. Walking back to where a parent is picking them up, the three girls pass by Frank’s, a diner where young people park their cars and hang out. Connie and Laura find Frank’s enticing. It has older boys, couples making out, and represents an adult world that they’re on the verge of entering. They make a plan to go there together, and at first, it’s great, at least from Connie’s perspective. The first man Connie takes a ride with — Jeff — is dreamy. He drives her up to lookout over the city, and Connie returns glowing from the experience.
But the next encounter — with a different man, Eddie — proves confusing. Eddie massages her back, runs his hands through her hair, and kisses her. But when he tries to take it further, she pulls back, telling him, “I’m not used to feeling this excited.” She exits the car in a hurry, and we’re not sure if it’s because she felt things were moving too fast for her personal comfort or if she felt restrained by social pressure on young women not to have sex. Perhaps a mixture of both.
Only now, she’s stranded with no ride home. As she walks, a group of drunk men heckle her from their car and throw beer cans at her feet when she refuses to get in with them. This car seems an omen for the final car that will realize the threat: Arnold Friend’s gold convertible.
In the climactic sequence, the male domain of the car and the repressed family home meet, trapping Connie between two bad choices. She does not desire Arnold — is in fact terrified of him — but her home has not equipped her to stand up to him. Dickinson writes that the film shifts in tone to be more like a slasher film here, with Connie huddled with the phone under the stairs as Arnold menaces from the doorway.
But this remains a melodrama, not a slasher, and Connie is no final girl. She’s trapped in the feminine paradox of accommodation and self-repression. The final girl would flee frantically, eventually assuming phallic power for herself to fight against her attacker. But in the melodrama, the woman subsumes her own identity, giving into heteronormativity and patriarchy.
So Connie opens the screen door, almost in a daze, and gets into the car.
While Smooth Talk has not yet been shown at IU Cinema, previous Laura Dern films that have been screened include Certain Women in 2016 as part of filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s visit and Jurassic Park in 2018 for the series Jurassically Yours: Extinct But Not Forgotten.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.