We were in Cheryl and Kristie’s room—Beth, Cheryl, Dan, Jill, Kristie and me. It was my sophomore year at Ball State. This was before I decided my heart wasn’t in my psychology major and near the start of the two year relationship I would have with Jill. I’m pretty sure it was a Friday—watching a movie together as a group was near-impossible during weeks where we all were taking 15+ credit hours. I’m pretty sure it was October: we were going to watch a double bill: first off was Frogs.
Kristie chose this movie, for what reason was never fully explained to us. It was as bad at the IMDB rating indicates: 4/10. No surprise, the film is very overt in its environmental politics. Basically, if you fuck with nature, nature will destroy you in whatever is the most convenient way possible. For the people in this movie, it was the wrath of frogs. We did watch the whole thing and agreed at the end that it was pretty horrible.
What we really wanted to see was the second feature of the double bill: Slums of Beverly Hills. At least I really wanted to see it. I had heard of the movie before we watched it that night, but was unable to gather much information on it. I’m not even sure where Kristie and Cheryl got the movie from, if they found it in the basement of the school’s library or one of them had bought it off Amazon. If I’d seen the trailer before we watched the movie, I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to see it.
The trailer makes the movie sound like a straight comedy, as opposed to the black comedy affair it turns out to be.
Natasha Lyonne plays Vivian, who along with her two brothers, move from crappy apartment to crappy apartment in Beverly Hills with their father Murray, played by Alan Arkin. The movie is primarily focused on Vivian, whose awkward moments we live through right alongside her. We see Vivian have her first sexual experience in the basement laundry room of Casa Bella and we see her being told that she has a mustache, of which she was unaware. A lot of these moments are more awkward as the only other female in her life is Rita, a cousin played by Marisa Tomei, who has recently escaped from rehab. The funniest of these awkward moments is when Rita and Vivian toss a vibrator between them while dancing to Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk.” Eventually, Murray opens the door and sees his daughter dancing with this vibrator, unable to turn it off when Rita tells her to “twist the head.”
While a lot of these moments are funny, the movie goes to its darkest places in a series of back-to-back scenes near the end. Rita ODs on some drugs in the apartment after her boyfriend overhears her on a phone say that she’s pregnant. Through a creak in a door, Vivian tears up as she sees her father touch Rita’s breast in a moment of dejection. But the most poignant of these scenes is the last one when Vivian goes to a plastic surgeon in the hopes of having breast reduction surgery, which she quickly decides against after looking at herself in a mirror. These three successive scenes really get to the heart of Slums of Beverly Hills.
When I watched the movie for the first time, I thought these three scenes were too sharp a turn, too removed from the flow of the movie. I don’t remember anyone saying anything during the movie, though Kristie probably did. We didn’t really discuss the movie after it was over, but I don’t recall anyone saying they disliked it. At the time I thought the last 20 minutes or so of the movie was too disjointed from the rest. Granted, I was barely 20, sitting on the floor of a dorm room, the grease of popcorn coating my fingers. I had a vague idea of what feminism was, but didn’t align myself with any -ism. Now though, 28, hours and hours of classwork behind me, these scenes that seemed weird are important me and, I think, the movie and the feminist message it seems to send.
Watching this movie at 28, I think it holds up well. No, it’s not a perfect movie by any means, but I think it occupies a special niche in the genre of chick flicks, if this movie could even be called that. The movie uses humor to explore how a young woman without a strong female figure in her life might form her identity. And even though I wasn’t a nomad like Vivian, nor a young woman, I could relate to her awkward moments in learning about the world. Everyone learns at least a little about the world from outside sources. Vivian learns about sex from a neighbor at Casa Bella. She learns about her body from an older, wilder cousin who escapes from rehab. I learned after getting on a plane to Arizona and not telling anyone. I learned over games of Magic: The Gathering at my friend Todd’s house. I will dance around my room singing “Buddy Holly” and not be ashamed.
Nate Logan's latest chapbook is Arby's Combo Roundup (Mondo Bummer, 2010). He runs Spooky Girlfriend Press and is a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.