Seeing and Being Seen in Smooth Talk

Movies Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Seeing and Being Seen in <i>Smooth Talk</i>

To get to the drive-in, she has to cross the highway. It’s of course worth it—that’s where the older boys hang out, and because it’s summer and she technically isn’t a freshman anymore, it’s a haven. The mall is juvenile, a sprawl of horny teens itching for attention, and the movies aren’t special. The drive-in is where you go to see and be seen. And 15-year-old Connie Wyatt (Laura Dern) wants so badly to be seen, even if she doesn’t understand the parameters of her own sight.

Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk, a 1985 adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, observes Connie wrestling with her burgeoning sexuality while pursued by a strange and hypnotic older man. The man, Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), is based largely on 22-year-old serial killer Charles Schmid, the “Pied Piper of Tucson,” who targeted teenaged girls in the mid-1960s. His methods were bizarre: He stuffed rags and tin cans in the insoles of his boots to appear taller, dyed his hair an unnaturally inky black, and wore pancake makeup, lipstick and mascara. The goal was Elvis; the reality was a greasepaint serial killer who couldn’t stand the idea of standing at a meager 5’3”.

As Chopra told AnOther in 2020, when assembling the film she had to ask, “What was the culture, what was the environment, in which the young girl would be susceptible to the flattery of Arnold to start with?” The Schmid character (aptly labeled A. Friend) emerges at first as a slick display of bravado at the drive-in, more intriguing than menacing: Leaning on a gold Pontiac LeMans (though a jalopy in Oates’ story), sporting aviators at nighttime, an hourglass tattooed on his tricep. He’s an amalgam of the cultural compulsions which might excite a 15-year-old girl in the ‘80s, someone whose cool demeanor would come crashing down on her in the final act.

The film culminates with Arnold knocking on Connie’s door while her family is out for a barbeque, coercing her out with increasingly troubling, ahem, smooth talk. He flatters her, begs her, threatens to set fire to her house. When Connie finally concedes, Arnold drives her out to a field, where it is suggested he rapes her. It’s a heart-wrenching finish, one assessed constantly within the shallow pool of writing on the film. But Connie and Arnold’s first encounter at the drive-in and the deviation between page and screen is its own horror show.

Donning a lace-up bustier, a sleeve of bangles and a thick silver armband, Connie sprints across the highway with her friend. They slump over the diner bar, awkwardly gossiping about slutty boys and the particulars of cruising. Chopra then cuts abruptly to Arnold’s perspective from outside. He watches Connie dance her way to a vending machine to buy cigarettes she won’t smoke while Rachel Sweet’s teenybopper banger “Cruisin’ Love” sets the scene: “Cruisin’ love, checking out the boys / She’s choosin’ love, checking out the choices / Using them to choose her love.”

The song is totally unserious (an aural assault for the bubblegum pop uninitiated) but it’s also an odd anthem of failed agency given the context. The disposability of the boys Connie is surrounded by and the prospect of safe experimentation are flung out the window; she’s being watched, and she doesn’t even know it yet.

After former schoolmate Jeff clumsily puts the moves on Connie—his only novelty being his age, presumably 18 and “out in the hard, cruel world now”—she agrees to leave with him. A thicket of gangly boys whoop in observance of Jeff’s great achievement and, implicitly, Connie’s exposed body. I think of myself at that age: How wonderful it felt to be gawked at and how nauseating it was to be touched. Being 15 felt like a cycle of dumb, inextricable little agonies. It’s a consequence of boredom, of not knowing what you want—emotionally, sexually, what have you—and chasing your every instinct in the hopes of finding it. When Connie coyly smiles at the boys whistling as she passes, it’s vaguely insincere. When she stops in her tracks, a look of disgust washing over her face as Arnold murmurs “I’m watching you” in her direction, it’s a pure, reflexive reaction.

In Oates’ story, Arnold doesn’t say this. He instead says “Gonna get you, baby,” wagging his finger at Connie when she passes him by. In a film which pulls a short story into a 92-minute feature like taffy, paring little and appending plenty, it’s a fascinating omission. The original line might be too forthright to tow Chopra’s languid suspense, but it plainly reveals Arnold’s intentions. “I’m watching you” is ambiguous; both a confession and a threat, a violent act of surveillance disguised as devotion, presaging Arnold’s arrival at Connie’s doorstep without pledging it outright.

Ambiguity oils the film’s engine here, and again at the coda; where Oates drops readers off right as Connie walks toward Arnold’s car, Chopra opts to keep her alive after the encounter, a decision that spurs a thousand new questions about where Connie might be going. But it’s the threat of being watched, or seen, which interests me more than being gotten. Smooth Talk is, after all, a film predicated on a violent act we never see, impelled by a gaze we cannot escape. The omission of a violent assault, both in Oates’ story and Chopra’s adaptation, leans away from the traumatizing potential of what is essentially a slow-burning victim story. Instead, Smooth Talk realizes the architecture of sexual abuse as not simply comprising a physical invasion, but a consistent, lethal mode of surveillance.

The surveillance in Smooth Talk is twofold. There’s Arnold watching Connie, which we get a glimpse at in that early drive-in scene, and tacitly through his pursuit as relayed by other characters. (“There’s this guy, he’s asking me questions about you. He stopped me on the street!” says one of Connie’s friends.) But there’s also Connie consciously being surveilled, glaringly aware of herself and her body at any moment. As Beatrice Loayza wrote for Cinema Scope, in one scene, “The camera observes [Connie] in profile as she spins and arches her back, her gaze glued to the supple body in the reflection, luxuriating in her new possession.” It’s a beautiful bit of acting by Dern, whose movements seamlessly illustrate the addictive quality of making oneself available to others and the crushing defeat of being made available unknowingly.

If “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is an allegory about a wolf in a maquillaged sheep’s clothing, Smooth Talk is a reappraisal of what it means to look and the very violation of being perceived as a young woman. There’s a moment after Connie bolts across the road to the drive-in the night she meets Arnold; she watches couples tonguing on car hoods and men ogling girls in tube tops. It’s neither aspirational nor voyeuristic, not an indictment of leering so much as a portent of abuse. A quiet inhale before a preventable storm.

Saffron Maeve is a Toronto-based writer and critic who once had to be talked out of getting a Sy Ableman tattoo. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, MUBI Notebook, Screen Slate, and Girls on Tops, among other corners of the internet. You can unfortunately find her on Twitter.