Film Muse: Smooth Talk

When I was a senior in high school my AP English teacher passed out a short story by Joyce Carol Oates called Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1966) (read here).  I remember the paper copies being limply tossed around the room - no one wanted to read it. The students were always rowdy during that time of the year, especially on hot and sticky days. I stuffed the handout into my backpack and didn't pull it out later until lunch:

"Her name was Connie."

Connie is a young woman who looks at herself in the mirror a bit too much. She is only 15 years old but knows how to change her demeanor in the blink of an eye, being classically trained in the act of being a woman. Her mother barks at her, comparing Connie to her perfect and more modest sister June. She criticizes her for lulling in trashy daydreams and dancing to rock music. 

But Connie takes the hits, because she knows that soon her best friend's dad will pick them up to go to the shopping plaza. Her and her friends will be able to escape into their budding lives of being teenagers - browsing store windows, gawking at boys, and running across the highway to the forbidden drive-in.

Oates' Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? was later adapted into a film called Smooth Talk in 1985 by Joyce Chopra (see stills). Smooth Talk is almost a word for word adaptation of the short story, apart from the ending. Laura Dern plays Connie brilliantly - innocent yet grown. Connie and her friends relish in the moments of summertime, hopping from store to store. As Roger Ebert puts it"they parade through the mall, attracting attention they do not know how to handle". 

I remember riding my shitty Target bike to the rundown church playground with my friends, feeling as if we'd outgrown the place in an impressive way. We'd go on the rusty swings and pump our legs, seeing which one of us could go higher than the other. Sometimes we'd wish that the elusive neighborhood boys would come out with their BB guns, and sometimes they did. We never knew their names - they went to a different school, but we'd get underdogs from them and watch them hilariously throw Frisbe's at each other (aiming for the nards of course). We'd leave them high and dry, grabbing our bikes and riding off across the parking lot into the sunset. 

I remember the thrill of those preteen years. Nothing feels cooler than strolling into Southdale Mall with your girl crew, oblivious to the strange older men who would stare. Or after seeing a movie, we'd wait outside along the flickering poster displays watching older teens arrive for the super late showings. One day that would be us. We'd have our own cars and do whatever we wanted. Then - one of my friend's dad would pull up and snap us out of it. But it felt nice sitting in the back of their car, safe. 

Oates describes the electricity of being young and (seemingly) free in a painfully beautiful way. 

"They rode off with the girl's father, sleepy and pleased, and Connie 
couldn't help but look back at the darkened shopping plaza with its big empty parking lot and its signs that were faded and ghostly 
now, and over at the drive-in restaurant where cars were still circling tirelessly. She couldn't hear the music at this distance."

Although Connie's era was narratively driven by sex, radios, and drive-ins, the reader can't help but relate the story to their own generation. The feelings of curiosity and wanting to be wanted are universal to many young women. Yet as we've all learned, these feelings are destined to expire and become hardened. 

The story takes a dim turn when Arnold Friend shows up. He originally spots Connie at the drive-in, marking her with a big X. He's shaggy, wears sunglasses at night, and mimics the James Deans of the generation. Elusive, but pervasive. As Connie returns, she is left home alone while her family goes out to a barbecue. Out of the blue, a gold convertible pulls up with the same boy from the diner. But he isn't a boy. He's a man. He has come to shatter Connie's dreams of independence and love. He has come to take her away.

The Arnold Friend storyline really messes me up. There are a few tracks that we can go down, so bear with me. First of all - Oates made this character after the infamous Pied Piper of Tuscon: Charles Schmid. During the 1960s, 'Smitty' murdered three teenage girls with the help of this friends and 19 year old girlfriend. Being described as a "pipsqueak" of a guy, Smitty was a classic overcompensating ego-maniac standing 5'3. He'd stuff his boots with Coke cans to make him seem taller, put on pan makeup to seem tanner. Girls loved him, they ride in his car and go on dates. He was a misogynist that got his fix by luring innocent girls. 

It's interesting because Oates mentioned how she wasn't exactly fascinated by Charles Schmid for the story, but rather by his friends and lover that helped him carry out the crimes. What would drive the youth to do that?

Then there was a lot of talk about if this film could be classified as a piece of feminist work or not. The story leaves the plot open ended: Friend demands Connie to get in his car, leave her family, and let him have her. In the film, Connie takes the ride and is dropped off at home where she presents to nonchalantly tell her sister about the event.

What does this mean?  That Arnold Friend's talk made sense, and that she secretly desired to be taken away? That the event was punishment for expressing her sexuality? That all young girls secretly desire the protection and domination of men?

I think that is all bullshit. This is not a sensationalized morality tale. I see the story and film as a painful recollection of what it means to become a woman. Arnold Friend emotionally rapes Connie and tries to permanently change who she is. As Connie grabs the telephone and cries out for her mother, she realizes that she isn't a girl anymore. She realizes that she has been thrust into a world that is full of  condemnations and false roads that lead to dead ends. She selflessly realizes that the only way out is to submit to Friend, which in turn saves her family.

Isn't that what we all do? We sink into our roles to make everything a bit easier even though it terrifies us sometimes. This isn't a gutless girl being hypnotized by some crazy psychopath. She just understood too much a little bit too late.

Oates dedicated Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? to Bob Dylan. What does that mean? Dylan was a legend during the 1960s progressive movement, calling out society left and right. Was this act of dedication that of a plea? A plea to recognize what most people still didn't? Maybe she saw something in one of his songs. Maybe she thought he'd see something more in this story. I still don't know exactly why she dedicated the story to him.

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who's rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start a new
And it's all over now, Baby Blue.

This story is important. This story is relevant. This story is sad.

You can feel it ache in your bones, even if you don't share the explicit experiences. This is a story about what it means to be a young girl thrust upon our predetermined culture. There's a spot for you already made. Connie had to take it. Are you going to take it?

-Lauren Rose
Curbside Fashion


  1. This is so hauntingly and lyrically put Lauren, I love how you really get to the essence of films.
    Claire x

  2. Your sense of language is breath taking

  3. Hi, how come you havent been making any videos? I miss you and them :c Great post. xx

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  5. Hi! I was wondering where you find your old footage in your videos? Love your blog!!

  6. Laura linda demais!que pernas bonitas!me apaixonei poe essa atriz! que gata!!!Marcos Punch.