Take one photogenic adolescent. Add a large helping of platitudinous life lessons, a smidgen of sexual experimentation and a dash of adult corruption. Glaze with a saccharine voice-over and what do you have? The coming-of-age drama. This week, however, sees the release of an accomplished swipe at the youth wing of Hollywood's American Dream Factory.
Set in the 1970s, The Slums of Beverly Hills offers a blackly comic account of growing up poor in Los Angeles' richest neighbourhood. Seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Vivian Abramowitz, it's an everyday story of divorce, drug addiction and burgeoning bra size which eschews the tedious teleology of most rites-of-passage dramas to deliver an altogether grittier exploration of emotional and economic survival.
As with many first features, Slums draws on the experiences of its writer- director. Like Vivian, 27 year-old Tamara Jenkins was brought up by a divorced father and spent her childhood rent-dodging between a series of cheap Beverly Hills motel rooms. "When we moved from the East Coast I thought it would be like Oz. The streets were paved with gold, but we didn't have any. We were living in these crappy little boxes with thin walls that shook during earthquakes," she says. Cramped into such small spaces, Jenkins, like Vivian, had to endure the mortification of puberty as a "spectator sport".
"Looking back, adolescence is really filled with humiliation," says Jenkins. "Living on the outskirts of wealth gives you a massive inferiority complex. That's true of the whole Abramowitz family, but I was especially interested in how that mirrors the inferiority a girl of 15 already feels. Female development is a very public act. This has always fascinated me. Boys' bodies don't change visibly as they reach teenhood, but its OK for them to stare at their sister's developing chests, it's OK for uncles to say: `Heavens, you've filled out.' It's a stage when everyone seems to be staring at you and preying on you and I wanted to be honest about that."
Slums is not the first time that Jenkins has plundered her fractured family history for material. The 1980s saw the aspiring actress touring a solo show called A Family Outing around tiny, New England venues. "Yes, I was a teenage performance artist," she confesses. "I would perform in front of photographs that I'd taken from the family album and copied onto slides. I wasn't consciously moving towards making a movie, but in a weird way I was. With me standing in front of the screen, telling the stories that went with the pictures, my show was like the lowest budget, most primitive movie you could make."
Regularly invited to perform in New York, Jenkins eventually moved there and enrolled at NYU film school. After a couple of short films, Jenkins' screenplay for The Slums of Beverly Hills was accepted for development at Robert Redford's Sundance screenwriting lab, and later sold to Fox Searchlight. There, it went through another year of pre-production, and the writer-director found herself under close scrutiny for the first time. "I'd never been confronted with that kind of structure before. I'd made performance art when my parents weren't paying attention, then films at NYU when no one was paying attention, then all of a sudden people were commenting on what I was doing." Public female development, all over again...
Inevitably, the studio was keen to iron out any unmarketable mixed-genre ambiguity and sell Slums as another cute coming-of-age comedy. "There was a disparity between my vision and what they wanted," says Jenkins. "In a way I was lucky because I could get some risky things through because I was funny, but there was stuff that was supposed to be more bleak. I wanted to explore how your anatomy starts to dictate your relationship to the world," she says. "The anxiety that Vivian's body creates in the family, and the way in which her interior life is alienated from her exterior."
Ironically, when Jenkins began to audition for her "stacked" ingenue, she found real teenagers too sophisticated. "They were too poised and well-rehearsed," recalls Jenkins. "Luckily, Natasha [Lyonne] wasn't like that. She looked like a puppy whose legs are too long. She had that awkward physicality." Indeed, Lyonne was perfect for the role of Vivian in every respect except for her chest, which was a 32A.
"We gave her a set of prosthetic breasts," laughs Jenkins. "At our first rehearsal she was flinging herself around yelling: `These are great, I love these'. She and [co-star] Alan Arkin even started playing catch with them. So I had to explain that Vivian has a different relationship to her body. In the end I said, all right, go out into the world and come back and let's talk about your experience. She walked out thrust into the universe and came back completely hunched. It was the perfect acting exercise, I couldn't have conceived of a better way to get the actor to find her emotional anchor for the role."
With supporting players Marisa Tomei and Kevin Corrigan on board, the film was shot and taken to an Los Angeles mall for test screenings. "After the cards came back I felt like an alien in my own land," yelps Jenkins. "Some of the audience had filled in cards saying: `This film is really depressing, they're poor at the beginning and they're poor at the end.' I couldn't believe there were people who would have that reaction. You know, Vivian and the family grow. You just don't see it in terms of cash. The fact that the family are still poor at the end is the whole point. It's an anti-American dream."
After the test screenings, the studio insisted Jenkins use a voice-over. "I hope it's not oppressive. My fear was that it would suggest some great moral lesson," she says. So is she pleased with how the film turned out? "It's my first feature. My first experience of box-office figures and reviews and all those other things that are used to measure success. But basically, in Hollywood it all comes down to money." Jenkins adopts the mindless, sing-song chant of her imagined test audience: " `She was poor before she made the movie and she's poor now' - so, I guess it wasn't a success," and she laughs the laugh of a teenage performance artist whose survived her first studio movie. After The Slums of Beverly Hills, you suspect, Jenkins will never be quite the same again.
`The Slums of Beverly Hills' is reviewed on page 12
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