In this weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. This week we recommend Susan Seidelman’s bracing Felliniesque debut, which is set during the waning years of the New York punk scene.
Smithereens travels the hardest roads. It doesn’t allow its protagonist to achieve her goals and makes her scrabble and clamour for a place in the world. But it also asks if those goals are at all noble, and if her place in life is the one she sees for herself. She does not, after all, know exactly what she wants, other than a notional ideal of fame and notoriety (which she believes she can get easily by becoming a band’s groupie). Whatever talents she may possess we do not ever come to know. We do get to know all her bad traits: the way she exploits the people around her without trying to earn a decent living, the way she seeks to find the easiest solutions for her problems, the way she has no scruples in turning to crime to get what she wants. She is adrift in more ways than one, and the sad part about it all is that she’s burned so many bridges that no one is willing to help her turn over a new leaf. Nor does she seem to care about doing so. Before anyone has a chance to offer alternatives, she repeatedly leaves in a huff, lying that she has a million-and-one other places to go. Her stubbornness and pride are but two more vices to add to her catalogue, and two more reasons why her journey in this film is so unsuccessful.
Despite being a downer of a story, Smithereens casts a beguiling spell as an everlasting record of the shifting punk scene in America during those days. Seidelman recreates the era’s grubby mystique with unflinching fidelity and brings it to life for people (such as myself) who may not have lived through it themselves. The sounds, the styles and the attitudes are on full display, defiant and rambunctious in much the same way Wren is. Further to that is Susan Berman’s irresistible performance as our untrustworthy lead. Rocking red hair and even redder kicks, she becomes a small whirlwind of chaos that we cannot turn away from, try as we may. I was shocked to learn her acting career was so short-lived. This is the kind of performance that nowadays would rocket someone to the very top. But perhaps it was meant to be this way, because this will forever be her role. Sometimes it’s not so bad being a one-hit wonder, because at least your name is always going to be attached to a work of great quality.
Sure, in the end this film leans heavily on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria as a source of inspiration, but there’s enough here to make it its own animal. Plus, while the Fellini ends on a broken smile, this one is assuredly much grimmer. There’s no telling if Wren will ever smile again after the events that transpire.
Smithereens is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion and can also be streamed on The Criterion Channel.