In 1966, novelist Joyce Carol Oates came across the story of the Pied Piper of Tucson, about American serial killer Charles Schmid who manipulated and preyed upon teenage girls. It inspired her own short story, ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’, which became the basis for Smooth Talk (1985).
The film follows Connie (Laura Dern), a 15-year-old teenager on the cusp of womanhood and at odds with her family, particularly her mother Katherine (Mary Kay Place). During what she views as a long and boring summer, Connie begins to explore her sexuality with potentially disastrous consequences as she crosses paths with Arnold Friend (Treat Williams).
Almost nauseously melodramatic at times, Smooth Talk’s biggest strength is the trio of women whose work is centred at the heart of its creation. Most obviously there’s 18-year-old Dern’s performance, heralding all of her promise as a nuanced and skilled actress in the decades to come. The film’s director, Joyce Chopra, made her narrative feature debut, tapping into many of the same themes she first explored in her documentary short Girls At 12 (1975). And Carol Oates’ source material balanced the fear and frivolity of such a specific time.
Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival alongside fellow female-driven cult classic Desert Hearts (1985), Smooth Talk won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature and kickstarted fascinating careers for almost everyone directly and indirectly involved.
- Maria Lewis, Assistant Film Curator (ACMI)
Presented in partnership with ACMI
See more films in our Wild at Heart - the films of Laura Dern season.
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