Suspended between carefree youth and the harsh realities of the adult world, a teenage girl experiences an unsettling awakening in this haunting vision of innocence lost. Based on the celebrated short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, the narrative debut from Joyce Chopra features a revelatory breakout performance by Laura Dern as Connie, the fifteen-year-old black sheep of her family whose summertime idyll of beach trips, mall hangouts, and innocent flirtations is shattered by an encounter with a mysterious stranger (a memorably menacing Treat Williams). Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Smooth Talk captures the thrill and terror of adolescent sexual exploration as it transforms the conventions of a coming-of-age story into something altogether more troubling and profound.
Sourced from a new 4K restoration, Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk receives a another Blu-ray edition, this time from The Criterion Collection, who present the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The restoration was sourced from the 35mm original camera negative.
Criterion's new presentation for the film is an absolute stunner, all thanks to an incredible looking restoration that just exceeds any sort of expectation I could have had. The first thing that just struck me was the grain. The film is fairly grainy, and it can get heavy, but it looks so clean and natural throughout, even during the darker nighttime sequences, which all look great. This leads to incredible details in every shot, fine-object detail just looking impeccable, whether it be in the facets of a central diner or the fields surrounding the main character’s house, itself looking incredible in all of its dilapidated glory. Colours also come off looking bright and clean, and the black levels are mostly pure; a few interiors look a bit muddy, but that could easily come down to lighting. Either way, shadow detail isn’t impacted.
The elements have also been cleaned up extensively and there is next to nothing here in the way of damage; I recall seeing a minor spec here and there. Outside of that the image really is as close to perfect as one could probably expect for the film, and it looks like it could have been made yesterday.
similar to the picture I was also stunned by the included PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack; it manages to be dynamic with a surprising amount of range. Voices sound great with excellent depth and fidelity, but the music is what sticks out, mixed a little louder and never coming off harsh.
Despite the film receiving a number of home video releases prior to this one (including a DVD from MGM and another Blu-ray from Olive Films) Smooth Talk has never received anything that could be classified as a special edition. Criterion fixes that and then some, packing in a lot of material. Criterion first includes three short films by Chopra, including two from an educational series/program around the role of women in American society: Girls at 12 (1975, 30-minutes) and Clorae and Albie (1975, 37-minutes). Girls at 12 gets referenced a number of times throughout the features in relation to Smooth Talk, Chopra even pointing out in an interview that a few scenes in her feature film lift directly from the short. The short in question follows a group of girls who have either turned 12 or are just turning 12, and it looks at how their lives and interests are changing. Interviews from the adults in their lives accompany all of this, and they explain how perceive where they should be heading: a teacher says that home economics classes are important for girls (saying it keeps them out of trouble) and a father (along with other family members) feel they should just settle and marry when they become adults. The girls see their lives in a different way, though, and feel that some of the expectations are ridiculous.
Clorae and Albie tackles similar themes around the expectations women have thrust upon them, though this time solely from the perspective of two black women who have been friends their whole life. Both talk about disillusionment in the education system, leading to them feeling it wasn’t even worth trying most of the time, despite both being accepted into programs for gifted students. Albie's journey is especially fascinating, as she ended up going to a school in the mountains of Vermont. Through their discussions you get a sense that the two felt they shouldn’t bother trying to do much of anything in life, like they were both being prepared just to be housewives (“why do I need an education to be a housewife?”), or it was too stressful for them, Albie mentioning she was one of two black students in the school she went to, saying she felt as though she was representing the entire black race. Both, at the time of this film being made, decide to change things and look at careers they can be proud of, Albie looking to get into social work and Clorae going back to school.
Both films convey the limited choices women may feel they have, but the third film here (not part of the same series) provides this perspective from Chopra herself. Co-directed with Claudia Weill, Joyce at 34 revolves around Chopra and how her career, like other women in the same situation, took a hit when she became a mother, showing how women are forced to choose between a career and family. Though one key scene doesn’t actually show Chopra (and she explains why in an interview found on the disc), it’s an effective 28-minute short. (Because of Weill’s involvement, Criterion also included the film on their release for her film Girlfriends).
Chopra then shows up in two interviews. The first is a new 17-minute discussion with the director about her career, the films on this disc (she also mentions another film in the educational series, which has not been included), and her surprise at being told her work has influenced other women filmmakers. She talks a little about what attracted her to the story that inspired Smooth Talk (based on Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, “Whare Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”) but most of the discussion around that film is saved for a 29-minute excerpt from a 1985 KPFK Radio interview. Here, Chopra talks about the story in more detail along with the original crime that inspired that story, before getting into the film’s music and the performances. She even explains the inspiration behind the film's title.
There is then a newer group interview called The Women of Smooth Talk, conducted remotely for the 2020 New York Film Festival—where the new restoration for the film was screened—and featuring Chopra, author Joyce Carol Oates, actor Laura Dern, and moderator Alicia Malone. Guided by Malone and then by submitted questions later on, the three discuss the film and the original short story, Oates getting more into the meaning of some details in the story (along with why it’s dedicated to Bob Dylan) and then Dern talking about her shock at how broadly the film can be interpreted depending on the person. Chopra also shares some production details that made the shoot and whole casting process hectic (she only had Treat Williams for a short window) and then she shares the story of how Dern was ultimately cast. In all it’s a great little overview of the production, the film’s themes, and its impact.
Criterion next includes their own remote interview featuring Chopra and actors Mary Kay Place and Treat Williams, with Malone moderating again. The two actors end up having more to say this time around, Chopra there to fill in some details and Malone to steer the conversation. Each actor shows up separately. Place first talks about the mother/daughter relationship, as well as the importance of the house in the film, which her character is repairing. Williams then talks about the changes he brought to his character, who sounds to have been written to be more overtly threatening. He felt this was wrong, and that the character would see it more as a game, that he needed to lure Dern’s character out of the house. Watching it now, he feels the character is even creepier than he remembered him.
That last interview is especially insightful around the development of the characters and the nuances in each performance. It felt like it would be hard to top but, much to my surprise, a new audio interview with production designer Dave Wasco comes very close. Admittedly, with a character driven film like this, with what I imagine would be a limited budget, I wouldn’t have thought a lot would have gone into the film’s production design, but Wasco goes over the intense amount of work that went into getting the right look for the film, which called for scouting for the perfect places and then dressing them up appropriately. Wasco, with the aid of production and polaroid photos, explains the thought process that went behind every setting in the film, from the diner to the house and more.
Along with the film’s original trailer and the re-release trailer, Criterion includes an audio reading of a 1966 Life magazine article about killer Charles Schmid, Jr., “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” Schmid's crimes inspiring the original short story. The article covers Schmid and the murders, going over each one in detail, and then his eventual capture. The piece runs 39-minutes and plays over a photo of Schmid and the teen informant that led to his arrest, Richard Bruns.
Criterion also includes one of their more impressive booklets as of late (at least for a single release). The 44-page booklet first features an excellent essay on the film by Honor Moore, followed by the reprint of a 1986 essay by author Oates on the adaptation of her story. But the biggest and best inclusion is a reprinting of Oates’ original story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The character Williams plays is a little different here, though just as creepy.
In the end, Criterion does the film right. They pack in a lot of material here and I feel they effectively cover all of the bases I would expect, even going the extra step of including the story.
I’m surprised it has actually taken this long for the film to receive a stacked special edition like the one we get here, but the wait was certainly worth it. Criterion packs this with a lot of great material along with a stunning looking presentation.