Smithereens (1982)

Rating: B-

Dir: Susan Seidelman
Star: Susan Berman, Brad Rijn, Richard Hell, Nada Despotovich

This feels like an East-coast equivalent to Repo Man, with a similarly punk-rock sensibility. There’s not the same unfettered anarchy, yet they have a common “can do” attitude. Both also operate on the fringes of the music scene, and act as a time-capsule from the early eighties of their respective cities – Los Angeles for Repo Man, New York here. This was pieced together on a considerably smaller budget ($80,000) and feels a but less likable, particularly in its heroine, Wren (Berman, like most of the cast, making her feature debut). To be honest, the phrase “manipulative bitch” comes easily to the lips. Mind you, the same goes for the majority of the characters. The phrase “crabs in a bucket” also comes to mind.

Wren is basically a talentless grifter, trying to go viral (or the eighties version thereof) by flyposting her face around the city. It’s not working: few people know who she is, and even fewer care. She’s evicted from her apartment, and forced to live with friends, most of whom don’t seem to like her much either. The two men in her life are Paul (Rijn) and Eric (Hell). The former recently arrived from Montana, and is living out of his van on a vacant lot. The latter is a musician, trying to get out of New York. Wren wants to use both to her own advantage, only to alienate nice guy Paul, and find herself used by the even more cynical Eric.

It’s the kind of enterprise I typically find more annoying than endearing to watch. I can still respect the craft, and there are some scenes which work well – as much due to their sheer quirkiness. For example, a hooker climbs into Paul’s van to escape the cold, and ends up offering to show him her scar for five bucks. “It’s in a real interesting place,” she tells him. There’s something refreshing and honest about the sequence, both ingredients which the rest of the movie could use in greater quantity. I grew tired quite quickly of Wren’s deception (both of other people, and herself), as well as her whininess, and found myself increasingly on the side of karma’s repeated slapping, upside of her head.

There isn’t quite the same grubbily definitive sense of time and place as in, say, Ms. 45. This does, however, do a good job of depicting the psychological location, by which I mean the way life in the big city grinds you down. It’s notable how new arrival Paul is the only “good” character, simply because he hasn’t been in New York long enough for the grim realities of urban survival to grind him down into being a selfish bastard. This is what I meant by respecting the craft. Yes, Wren is not a nice person. This is entirely deliberate, however, and on those terms, you have to accept the film is a success. These are still, by and large, people with whom I’d not want to spend time, and that applies whether we’re talking about in reality or on the screen.