Thirty-three years before Greta Gerwig’s nomination for Best Director at the 2018 Academy Awards for Lady Bird, Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk won the Grand Jury prize at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival. Critics heaped praise on the coming-of-age drama, which featured then-18-year-old Laura Dern in her first leading role, and celebrated Chopra as a woman director who seemed to be breaking the mold.
And then, after a quiet theatrical release, the movie disappeared.
“It fell off the radar,” Chopra told Refinery29 in a phone call ahead of the film’s re-release. “It went through different distributors, and then it just sort of stopped, which frustrated me. People would ask me, “How can I see it?” and I’d have to say, “Buy a DVD.’”
For years, Smooth Talk languished in limbo, unavailable on mainstream streaming services. And though she continued to work in film and television, Chopra’s soaring career buzz slowly fizzled — until now. After a 4K restoration and an acclaimed digital run at this year’s New York Film Festival, Smooth Talk is being re-released by Janus Films on November 6, and will be available to stream on Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema platform.
Unfortunately, Smooth Talk’s trajectory isn’t that unusual. Now & Then, another beloved coming-of-age tale written and directed by women, was also unavailable to stream for years before it finally landed on Netflix back in May. (It’s now gone again.) The same can be said for the Tamra Davis and Shonda Rhimes-scripted Crossroads, starring Britney Spears, and the Brandy-fronted 1997 live-action classic, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Neither are easily accessible, with the former available only on DVD, and the latter mysteriously absent from Disney +.
Still, maybe because it’s been sitting dormant for so long, there’s something magical about watching Smooth Talk today. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 1966 short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” Chopra’s film is equal parts teen movie, mother-daughter drama, and psychological horror. In someone else’s hands, it could easily have turned into a morality tale, meant to deter women from taking risks or seeking out adventure. Chopra is adamant that was never her intention. Instead, the movie acts as a mirror of society’s corrosive expectations for young women, who are told to be more docile and agreeable in order to get treated well, ultimately grooming them as easy prey and blaming them when they succumb.
Smooth Talk is haunted by an unsettling feeling. It’s there as 15-year-old Connie stalks the mall with her glossy-haired blonde friends, scoping out boys. It’s there as she fights with her mother (Mary Kay Place), equal parts worried about and frustrated with the daughter she sees as full of “trashy daydreams.” It’s there as she giggles on the side of the highway, fending off catcalls in a halter top. And it’s there as Connie sways to a James Taylor song barefoot in her kitchen, seemingly carefree. But like Connie, we don’t realize exactly what’s wrong until it’s too late. If the first hour of Smooth Talk unfolds as a classic teen movie, the final stretch is something completely different. A meeting with a stranger, known as Arnold Friend (a dangerously seductive Treat Williams), sets off a course of events that’s so visceral and unexpected it would be a shame to spoil it. (Let’s say that while there’s no physical rape, there is an undeniably disturbing and unshakeable violation.)
As Connie, Dern delivers a performance that’s almost witchy in its power to convey the fizzy excitement and abject terror of being a teenage girl. She’s a woman divided: fascinated by the concept of sex, but overwhelmed by the reality of making out in a car with a boy. At home, she fights with her mother about picking up the dishes; out in the world, she’s on the cusp of adulthood, without really being aware of what that means. All of this is perfectly illustrated by Dern, emotionally but also physically. At times, dwarfed by her oversized baseball shirt, she looks about 13; out after curfew in her mini-skirt, she looks closer to 20.
It’s impossible to imagine the movie without her. And yet, casting Dern was a lucky accident, Chopra says, the conclusion of months of fretting about finding an actress that could portray the petty selfishness of a teenage girl growing up in Northern California without turning off the audience.
“I had a terrible time casting the parts because on the page, she reads as a bitch,” Chopra said. “Laura's ability to both say harsh things to her mother, and yet do it in a way that you sympathize with her — it's very hard to do.”
“I met so many actresses,” she continued. “I had every casting director in the country looking for this character, and we were two weeks away from filming when a producer was talking to a friend of his about the problem, and she said, ‘I see her right now. She’s walking by me on the beach.’ And it was Laura. That’s how I met her. It was a miracle.”
No less miraculous is Smooth Talk’s ability to feel brand new, despite having been filmed more than thirty years ago. Partly, that’s because coming-of-age films are still dominated by male narratives; but Chopra’s lens, and the script, co-written with husband Tom Cole, cannot and should not be discounted.
As in Lady Bird (“A terrific movie!” Chopra exclaimed), Connie’s fraught relationship with her mother is arguably the defining arc of the movie. It explains everything that comes after, setting the stage for Connie’s vulnerability. It’s a story that was very personal for Chopra, who based a memorable scene in which Connie shrugs off her mom’s attempt to hug her on her own experience as a mother.
“At the time I made it, I had a daughter who was 14, and a lot of the script comes out of the change in our relationship. She had been very close to me, and suddenly I wasn’t allowed to touch her. One day [she] came in and I did the usual kissing on top of her head, and she pulled away and said [the line that made it into the movie]: ‘I’m not your property, mom.’ It really hurt.”
It's galling that a movie so prescient and potentially formative for generations of women was ultimately brushed aside, leaving its male-directed contemporaries like John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink and Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance to become the seminal teen girl movies of the 1980s. But Smooth Talk’s legacy in reshaping the possibilities for a movie about girlhood is remarkable, especially when you consider the very fine balancing act required for it to work.
After three decades, it looks like the world has finally caught up, and Chopra is thrilled with the reception the movie’s gotten since its NYFF premiere.
“The only films that I remember [seeing] about girls were adaptations of the novelist Booth Tarkington — very sedate and written by men — or the John Hughes films. I’d certainly never seen anything like Smooth Talk. So much has happened in terms of women speaking up and speaking out. People are so much more receptive to it now.”