For her debut film, the funny and wise Slums of Beverly Hills, writer-director Tamara Jenkins has created a coming-of-age film that's truly about innocence and experience: the burdens and satisfaction that come with knowing.
Like other films about the transformative events that shape a person, Slums of Beverly Hills deals with the complex nature of sexual awakening. With a great deal of witty, compassionate, female-centered frankness, Jenkins presents the travails of 15-year-old Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne) who recently and abruptly metamorphosed from scrawny to "stacked."
Although her breasts are suddenly a focal point, they are by no means the only things causing confusion in her world. Living with two brothers -- the smug teen Ben (David Krumholtz) and perky kid Rickey (Eli Marienthal) -- is challenging enough. Moreover, their father Murray (Alan Arkin) insists they live in Beverly Hills.
Always on shaky fiscal ground, Murray leads them on a nomadic trek from one low-rent furnished apartment to another ("moving" in the dead of the night) so the kids can attend school there.
During the strange, important summer of 1976, Vivian is romanced by Eliot (Kevin Corrigan), an oddly endearing pot dealer with a Charles Manson fixation, and gains a dubious female role model: her jittery cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei), a rehab clinic escapee.
In a striking, playful scene, Rita's vibrator (a missile of white plastic) is the impetus for a joyous, uninhibited girls-only dance to Parliament's "Give Up the Funk." While expressing Vivian's sex-related confusion, Tamara Jenkins gives equal weight to her discovery of pleasure.
But the real test of her maturation comes when Vivian recognizes what kind of man her father really is (a hopeless screw-up running from the humiliation of constant failure), yet still finds a curious, comforting pride in belonging to this particular tribe of "freaks."
Slums of Beverly Hills, in all its raunchy comedy and hard truths, shows the transition to adulthood not as the end of blissful ignorance but as the start of real life, in all its baffling, messy glory.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].