Released in 1985, during the exuberant flowering of films by women brought on by second-wave feminism, Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk now feels less of those years than like a harbinger of the #MeToo movement, an early challenge to a cultural silence now broken wide open. At the same time, the film’s enduring power lies in its timelessness as a portrait of a young girl at the brink of womanhood—Laura Dern, in her first starring role—tested by an encounter with a sexual predator, played by Treat Williams, that we witness in a tour-de-force twenty-five minutes at the heart of the film.
Smooth Talk, Chopra’s first fiction feature, brought her wide attention, but by the time she made this Sundance prizewinner, she had been working for two decades as a documentarian. She had apprenticed with the Direct Cinema pioneers D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock in the early sixties, learning from them both editing and how to use the portable 16 mm camera they helped invent that revolutionized documentary filmmaking; her first released film, the short A Happy Mother’s Day (1963)—about the Fischer quintuplets of Aberdeen, South Dakota—was a collaboration with Leacock. Regrettably, however—and predicting further obstacles she would face as a woman filmmaker—Chopra’s codirector credit was left out of the advertisements for the film. Nevertheless, she persisted, as the saying goes, the ambition to make her own films guiding her as she honed her craft.
I first met Chopra in 1971, when she walked into my consciousness-raising group. Our discussion that night—about whether to have children—was staged by Joyce and shot by one of our members, Claudia Weill, for a film they were working on together, Joyce at 34. They described the project as something then new in documentary: a “personal film.” Certain that having a child would change her life, Joyce was bringing her early Direct Cinema experience to what she would term a cinema-verité treatment of her own first year of motherhood.
Like many successful women of the time, Chopra had long taken for granted the opposition she faced, and was “barely aware of the feminist movement surging around me,” as she now recalls. Joyce at 34 changed that. Broadcast on public television in 1973, rapturously reviewed, and purchased for the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the film nonetheless failed to find a distributor—films about women did not attract audiences was the explanation she was given. Now Chopra became an activist, joining other feminist filmmakers in a cooperative called New Day Films, which sought to get their work—at first chiefly by and about women—to markets that included public libraries and colleges. Aided by endorsements from Gloria Steinem and Shirley MacLaine, the venture took off: “Each 16 mm print I put into a film can and hand-carried to the post office felt like a small victory,” remembers Chopra.
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