Versatility. Blue Underground, the exploitation DVD wunderkind, may best be known for releasing classic cult favorites often affiliated with sex and murder but the company has shown over time it has a softer side. Contrasting such underground classics as “Mark of the Devil” or “Dead and Buried” are quieter, more introspective work from established directors early years such as Susan Seidelman’s “Smithereens”. While Seidelman has been all over the map throughout her career directing both successful projects (“Desperately Seeking Susan”, the pilot for “Sex and the City) and failures (the wretched Roseanne Barr vehicle “She-Devil) her first feature is a rough gem and a true inspiration to indie filmmakers.
Having just finished film school and wanting to direct a full length feature Seidelman developed a story around the New Wave movement sweeping through New York City. Upon finding a screenwriter to help flesh out the idea (Ron Nyswaner) and assembling a crew willing to work for little to no pay, Seidelman set out to tell the story of Wren (Susan Berman) a free spirit wasting her life on the streets of New York. Wren is a young punk who plasters the city with pictures of herself while dreaming big, despite the fact she is unemployed and running out of money. Into her life comes Paul, a nice guy from out of town who lives in his van. Despite possessing no real job of his own Paul’s affection for Wren is genuine, unlike the attention given to her by sleazy musician Eric (Richard Hell). Shunning the right choice at every turn Wren’s life grows increasingly desperate as she is kicked out of her apartment and forced to make serious decisions as to where her life is headed.
There are a lot of elements within “Smithereens” that are familiar, from the flippant main character to her two relationship choices, however it is in Seidelman’s direction and the strong cast the film comes alive. As a quirky comedy the film works, the scenes feel improvised and fresh such as Paul’s brief conversation with a hooker who has made her way into his van or Wren’s awkward trip to visit her sister where her brother in law jokes about her past abortion! The film feels real thanks to the on location shooting and grainy film stock which helps add to the grittiness and off the cuff nature of the piece. As a portrait of a young woman living on the edge and unwilling to change how she lives her life, Seidelman crafted a funny and increasingly poignant first feature.
It is surprising that “Smithereens” has fallen off the radar as much as it has, both for being a truly engaging debut feature and also for having the distinction of the first American independent feature selected to compete at the Cannes film festival. Blue Underground has done a commendable job yet again of rescuing another worthwhile film from obscurity and hopefully providing a larger audience for the film which it rightfully deserves.