It's summer, and Connie (Laura Dern) and her two best friends Jill (Sara Inglis) and Laura (Margaret Welsh) have been lazing around on the beach all afternoon when they suddenly realise the time. The immediately jump to their feet and rush to the road where they hitchhike a lift from a passing truck driver, and after making up the excuses to tell their parents they separate for the day. Connie's mother (Mary Kay Place) wonders where she's been, and if, as she says, she has been to the mall why didn't she pick up a couple of paint rollers like she was asked? But Connie has other things on her mind...
Based on the short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates, Smooth Talk won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival the year it was entered, but has gone on to relative obscurity ever since, a rather unfortunate, not to say unfair, fate. Scripted by Tom Cole, it was a slow moving tale that appeared at first glance to be a coming of age story, but after its initial hour the mood of simmering tension boiled over into some non-explicit but uneasy scenes when Connie has attracted the attention of one of the local men, Arnold Friend (Treat Williams).
But before that we are barely aware that Arnold is around save for a brief instance of him staring at Connie through his sunglasses and telling her he is watching her as she walks by. Mainly Smooth Talk takes the form of a family melodrama with Connie outgrowing her parents and better-behaved sister, in a manner that suggests in every parent's worst nightmare their little girl is going to be that bit too independent for her own good, or anyone's good for that matter. She is even outgrowing hanging around at the mall with Jill and Laura, and it's Laura who introduces Connie to a bar where the older people congregate.
Jill isn't interested and resists the allure of the local adults, but Connie finds herself going on dates, if something so informal can be so termed, with young men, though she doesn't want to go as far as losing her virginity to them. Dern is excellent as the lead character, rebellious and vulnerable enough to make you worry that she is going too far which only builds up the suspense for the seemingly inescapably menacing final half hour. Connie's mother is still trying to control her by ordering her to do chores around the house, but it's only after the teenager has been to that bar for the first time that she complies, as if compensating for leaving her mother behind even for one night.
As I say, director Joyce Chopra keeps things moving at a snail's pace as if to replicate those lazy, hazy summer days, but when Arnold appears for his big scenes late on, she sustains the same syrupy forward movement, torturously dragging out the fears of Connie and the audience. Williams' smarminess is needling and insistent, his confidence that he's going to get what he wants disturbing; he's not in the film for long, but he certainly makes his mark. Only the final hint that what happened on that afternoon might have been a fantasy seems like a misstep, an unnecessary confusion, but before that the carefully, studiedly sinister Smooth Talk has been a model of well-handled and mounting anxiety that takes the stance that every man is just after one thing and one thing only, with some more willing to pursue it than others.