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Teeth   B

Roadside Attractions

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Writer: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Cast: Jess Weixler, John Hensley, Josh Pais, Hale Appleman, Ashley Springer, Vivienne Benesch, Lenny Von Dohlen, Nicole Swahn.

Review by Rob Vaux

Seriously, dude, no means no.

The early word surrounding Teeth describes it as "every man's nightmare," which I suppose is apt if you're looking at it from a man's perspective. Director Mitchell Lichtenstein, however, approaches it from the other side of the chromosome divide, and that makes all the difference. His topic is the vagina dentata myth: the notion of a fanged orifice into which randy young men go poking about at their peril. Rather than viewing it as a monstrous threat, however, Teeth treats it as feminine empowerment -- a unique weapon bestowed upon one lucky young woman in order to give impolite boys the biggest surprise of their life.

The very notion defies easy genre conventions. Certainly, the film approaches the topic as satire, chock full of wry digs at both sexual repression and male egocentrism. Parts of it bear a strong resemblance to horror too, with blood, gore, and squirms aplenty (especially for those of us attached to our penises). But weirdly enough, it most clearly resembles a coming-of-age story: the kind where the bloom of youth first takes hold and teenagers grapple with the wonderful changes that usher us all into adulthood.

Of course, some of those changes are more wonderful than others, at least as far as our young heroine goes. Dawn (Jess Weixler) lives a typical suburban life near the local nuclear power plant with her mother (Vivienne Benesch) and stepfather (Lenny Von Dohlen). She's also the leader of the local Promise Keepers, vowing chastity until marriage without the slightest clue of what that equation entails. Part of her prudishness stems from the disgustingly crude sexual life of her stepbrother Brad (John Hensley), who's never made his unbrotherly desire for her a secret and who takes out his frustrations on the remainder of her gender. But then, of course, comes the aforementioned blooming, and Dawn's horrified discovery that her lady parts possess, well, upgrades. Barbed, razor-sharp upgrades that can snap closed with the strength of a bear trap. They come in handy when a number of previously polite male associates develop an unseemly case of the grabbies. Teeth has plenty of fun mocking the folly of their sexual denial, as smug abstinent teens break down amid the pressures of raging hormones and Dawn starts to understand that the game is nothing like she assumed it to be.

More importantly, the film always keeps her at the center of the audience's sympathies, rather than shifting to any of the men. We follow her growth unerringly through fear and guilt to acceptance and even enjoyment of her condition. The boys, on the other hand, are generally louts: selfish, deceitful, and assuming that women exist solely for their benefit. Their assaults come unexpectedly and without mercy, driven by their own foolishness, but also consumed by the arrogant notion that women have no say in the sexual process. Teeth portrays them as unduly cartoonish at times (including one darkly sniggering scene with Josh Pais as the world's most condescending gynecologist), but still finds truth both in their insecure bravado and Dawn's understandable repulsion. Weixler helps out with a solid turn in the lead, playing up the funnier aspects of her character without losing sight of either her confused terror or her growing strength.

And Lichtenstein never balks at the tricky mixture of elements involved, giving Teeth a distinctive tone unlike any other. Its closest relation may be Hard Candy -- another twisted take on girl power through castration -- and while it lacks that film's searing intensity, its playful jabs are no less memorable. Its central failing comes in eventual repetition: the climax relies too much on previous scenes and really needed an extra twist to seal the deal. But Teeth demonstrates enough imagination in its conceit and enough intelligence in its execution to forgive it flagging a bit towards the finish line. Cult films come in all shapes and sizes, which is part of their appeal: none of them are quite like anything else. Lichtenstein knows how to work that angle with admirable skill, developing a fiendish little idea into a cool, sick, and subversive bit of naughtiness. If you'll forgive the pun, this time of the cinematic year can always use a little bite in the ass. Teeth has the tools to do the job right.

Review published 01.18.2008.

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