Sunday, May 11, 2008
Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Cast: Jess Weixler, John Hensley
Josh Pais, Hale Appleman, Lenny von Dohlen, Ashley Springer
"They're all unfamiliar, unless they're yours."
Michael C. Hall talking about genitals in "Six Feet Under"
Since the beginning of time, human beings have been fascinated by the mysteries of sex.
Early during life, men and women become aware that they are built differently; turning the genitals into the Rosetta Stone to be deciphered in order to find the ultimate secret.
For teenager Dawn O'Keefe (Weixler) this is no problem, she is the local chastity group's most comitted member and has promised to remain a virgin until the day of her wedding.
Dawn believes so much in her cause that she has never seen what her own vagina looks like (she assumes it must be something like the monsters from B horror films), condemns masturbation and is fearful of the "heavy making out" featured in PG-13 films.
Her life at home doesn't help make things easier. Her mother (Vivienne Benesch) is suffering from a life threatening disease, while her stepfather (von Dohlen) looks after her.
She must also deal with her rebellious stepbrother Brad (Hensley) who chain smokes, does drugs and kicks girls out after loud sex sessions.
One day she meets Tobey (Appleman), the cute new kid in town who gains her trust and reveals that he tried sex once, but has remained celibate ever since.
Dawn believes that anyone who experienced its dangers and reformed, is worth her admiration (and her erotic dreams). When he tries to rape her, Dawn discovers that she has something more unique than her convictions; a toothed vagina, which bites off anything that tries to enter its domain.
As if the awkwardness of coming to terms with her sexuality wasn't enough, she must deal with the mythical "vagina dentata", which ancient civilizations said could only be conquered by a worthy hero.
This twist has us wondering about all her possibilities that range from denial to a search for "the one".
But the film is so well made that it can afford the luxury of making us doubt whether it's about actual vaginal mutation, mere coming of age metaphor or psychosexual repression manifested by a physical reaction and hallucinations.
Rarely have movies tapped with such accuracy into the conflicts of growing up and director Lichtenstein makes justice to his last name's legacy by creating a stylized pastiche of genres.
Dawn's heartbreak is treated like you would see in a Molly Ringwald movie, while her approach to sexual themes is straight off a 1950's educational film.
And when she decides she's a Gorgon in the middle of a group speech, the scene achieves Greek tragedy connotations highlighted by a choir's response to her Cassandra like affirmations.
Weixler anchors the film with a flawless performance that draws from iconic work by Reese Witherspoon, Sharon Stone and Sissy Spacek.
Bringing a sense of wholesomeness to Dawn, she is able to be naively sexy and deliver dialogues that walk a fine line between sincere genre conventions and unintentional camp (especially in the film's best scene, a risky medical visit featuring the incomparable Pais as a gynecologist).
She moves across the frame with affecting honesty and even her slightest gestures and movements (like the way she dives her head underwater as if to baptize and cleanse herself after a heated moment) only help us know Dawn better.
She is the kind of actress that makes you wonder whether every single element of her performance was rehearsed or if she built it along the way; the kind of enigma without which the film couldn't lead to its unapologetic, chilling conclusion.
As impossible to classify as its complex center character, "Teeth" works as a cautionary tale, an empowering female treatise and a wickedly clever teen sex comedy, among others.
Dentata is Latin for teeth and "Teeth" apparently means unexpectedly brilliant filmmaking.