The sad news of Treat Williams’s recent death seems particularly poignant ahead of the Criterion Blu-ray release of Smooth Talk, which saw the actor play one of his more menacing roles as Arnold Friend opposite Laura Dern’s teen-tearaway Connie Wyatt.
The film, directed by Joyce Chopra and based on Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, while mostly concerned with the mother-daughter tensions caused by Connie’s irresponsible rebellion, is also a cautionary tale loosely wrapped in the guise of Grimm’s timeless archetype of ‘The Big Bad Wolf’.
15 year-old Connie is a coiled-spring of pent up longing and frustration, idling around her rural family farmhouse and snatching any opportunity of escape – whether that’s blasting music in her room, a trip to the mall with friends or dolling herself up for a clandestine night out to meet boys. Her sister June (Elizabeth Berridge) is the ‘perfect’ one, her father Harry (Levon Helm) seems content in his blissful ignorance and her mother Katherine (Mary Kay Place) is the persecutor trying but failing to both understand and connect with a daughter who’s eyes are fixed on an unknown horizon.
Connie’s is a typical conundrum played out in so many coming-of-age dramas, but the sensitivity with which Chopra handles scenes that show the deeper emotional waters shifting within the female characters is what sets Smooth Talk apart from the rest. Connie is fully aware of her sexuality, but is still too young to understand the risks of her flirtations – and the dangers only increase as she pushes away those who have her safety most in mind.
After a few dalliances with kids roughly her own age, she catches the eye of charismatic loner Arnold Friend (“I’m watching you”) – who takes advantage of Connie being left home alone to charm, cajole and ultimately threaten his way towards an intended goal.
To say that Connie brings the danger on herself and so is to blame for what follows is to miss the complex nature of sexual liberation and female autonomy which the film looks to explore through the quieter(ish) moments between Connie and her mother. Katherine’s frustrations at being left in charge of endless house repairs while dad drinks beer and pontificates on the merits of being a home-owner deepens her resentment of giving up on her own dreams as a young mother – and its these tensions that cause a constant butting of heads as Connie refuses to succumb to the same fate.
As misdirected as her wanderings are, Connie is just a kid looking for validation and to be cared for – something she feels that her distant father, overly-critical mother and judgemental sister don’t provide. Into this vacuum comes A. Friend (get it?) and his wily way with words designed to flatter and reassure (“you’re special”, “I see you”, “nobody will love you like I do”). The last 40 minutes of Smooth Talk brims with the tension of a nightmarish scenario as Connie’s naïve idealism is crushed by the harsh reality of destructive male force; ensuring that her world will never be the same again.
Laura Dern (in her breakout role) superbly embodies the duality of innocence and allure that would be seen in many of her future roles and Treat Williams plays the slick charlatan to perfection.
Blu-ray extras include conversations between Chopra, author Joyce Carol Oates and key actors, and interview with production designer David Wasco and an audio reading of the 1966 Life magazine article “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” which inspired the short story by Oates.
Smooth Talk is available to buy June 26th from Criterion