Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Teeth (2007)

The Movie: Dawn O’Keefe (Jess Weixler) is a teenage girl with some major issues. Her family situation is not good, first problem being her mother’s (Vivienne Benesch) serious and possibly chronic illness. Then there’s her stepbrother, Brad (John Hensley), who fits every stereotype of the teenage thug and harbors a not-so-secret letch for her.

But the biggest issue on Dawn’s mind is sex. She is a spokesperson for a Christian abstinence group called the Promise. Dawn believes whole-heartedly in the Promise’s philosophy, but that is shaken up by the arrival of a new member, Tony (Hale Appleman). The mutual attraction is almost immediate, and with it comes the fantasies. The two start dating while trying hard to stick to the group’s tenets.

Unfortunately, the advice “ignore it and it will go away” works every bit as well with teen hormones as it does in any other situation. That is to say, it exacerbates matters. A private swim in the woods turns into date rape, and that’s when Dawn’s troubles really begin. It turns out that Dawn has vagina dentata, teeth in her vagina. Now, a teenage girl who, through forces internal and external, knows next to nothing about her body must figure out what’s going on and how to control it.

The Review: Fair warning, I’m really going to psychoanalyze this one. Now, I have been fascinated by sex ever since I discovered, at a very young age, that boys and girls have very different anatomy. This has gotten me into some trouble over the years. No, not like that. I’m not on any list, I’ve never had to deal with any legal charges, and despite what some of my friends claim I’m not a sex fiend.

Admittedly, a fair portion of my fascination is pretty much the same reasons why anyone else would be interested in the subject. However, much of it comes from my fascination with humanity in general, how they act and react to things and why. That, I’m pretty sure, is mainly due to the difficulties I have always had understanding, dealing with and relating to my fellow talking monkeys. Another thing that I learned very young is that sex is probably the ultimate button-pusher issue for the human race. Don’t believe me? Stand in the middle of a crowded room and shout the word “penis” at the top of your lungs; then note the reaction you get.

One of the many universals I have come across is a fear of female sexuality. Vagina dentata, the “teeth” of this movie’s title, is definitely a widespread theme. While the specific examples I’m familiar with all come from Native American myths, the movie’s contention that it was found among the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Celts is not out of the question. After all, vagina dentata is the nightmare of a patriarchal mindset, and the ancient Greeks were chauvinists probably beyond the wildest dreams of our culture’s chauvinists. However, while I am familiar with these themes; what really got me about Teeth is that it’s the first time I’ve ever encountered them employed from the female point of view.

The problem our heroine, Dawn, has, is that she is caught between two extremely destructive views of sexuality. On the one hand is the Promise. No offense meant to anyone (well, maybe a little), but I personally think that the whole abstinence only philosophy is bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problems with the concept of abstinence in and of itself. After all, there are countless valid reasons to avoid sex outside a committed relationship; and many others for why teenagers should probably avoid sex entirely. And, if you truly believe that sex should be reserved only for marriage and intend to live by that; allow me to say with full sincerity that that is your business and more power to you.

However, I feel that a resolution like that is only valid when you truly make it for yourself. To do that, you need to know all the facts and be fully aware of what it is you are swearing to. That’s where my problem with the abstinence only movement comes in; it insists that you make a serious vow, but is completely antithetical to what you need to make that vow. Instead of making sure its adherents have what they need to do it, the movement instead relies on ignorance, misinformation and outright lies; not to mention guilt-tripping and fear-mongering, to get its way.

The abstinence only view’s solution is to ignore it. Unfortunately, not only are there teenage hormones to deal with, but it consists of the unfortunate kids being told on a regular basis “don’t think about sex.” To demonstrate the effectiveness of that: don’t think about elephants! Now, what’s the first thing that popped into your mind? Exactly.

On the other hand, Dawn has the attitude of her nonbeliever peers to deal with; the view that sex is purely a tool of male pleasure and dominance. Ironically, the two views feed off of each other. As the Promise and its ilk is all about making the “right choice” at any cost, the teens’ ignorance must be reinforced, lest knowledge lead to them making the “wrong choice.” Note how in Dawn’s anatomy class, they are taught about the male reproductive system, but the textbook diagram for the female reproductive system is covered up. Then there’s the insistence from both sides that females are supposed to be weak, submissive and vulnerable, and it ensures that Dawn is unable to survive outside the ideological bubble.

Dawn’s teeth problem provides us with a metaphor for her sexuality. Living in forced ignorance, with the very real dangers of sex on one side and the ideological lies and boogymen on the other, of course Dawn will find sex to be a terrifying and unpleasant thing. However, a powerful clue is revealed when one of her classmates actually seduces her, instead of attempting force or coercion.

In all the other unfortunate incidents before this, Dawn was scared and/or angry. Here, Dawn is really worried about what will happen to her suitor; but the noises he is making are definitely not shrieks of pain, and a good time is had by all. Unfortunately, said suitor is then stupid enough to take a phone call and brag to a friend about winning a bet that he would get Dawn into bed, while he is in the process of schtupping her, and the moron gets what he deserves.

Herein lies the crux of Dawn’s issue. Up until this point she has pretty much been a perpetual victim, both of her body and of others’ designs on same. However, once she starts actively trying to learn about what’s going on, a funny thing starts to happen. Suddenly, she is no longer the victim; and once Dawn discovers that she has control over her teeth, what was once her weakness now becomes a source of strength.

Jess Weixler has to carry the movie in her role as Dawn, and she does it wonderfully. She gives us a very likeable and identifiable character, an utter necessity for a film of this sort. However, Dawn isn’t perfect, either. I think the scenes that really affected me the most are the ones where Dawn is picked on by her classmates. On the one hand I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her, who of us hasn’t been signaled out for abuse by their peers at some point? On the other, there was a small part of me that insisted that she did have it coming to her; what with her constant proselytizing and saying truly stupid things. However, I did find myself cheering for Dawn all through the movie.

Ironically, while Teeth has all the elements of a good exploitation flick, it really isn’t an exploitation movie at all. There is a small bit of nudity, but it is not at all gratuitous. Likewise, the gore is used very sparingly; although what is there is very effective, especially if you’re male. Teeth does have a very pitch black, deadpan sense of humor, but ultimately it is a serious horror movie that plays it straight. For that reason alone I have the utmost respect for it.

So in conclusion, Teeth is a well made, effective horror movie. It has a good cast, especially its lead, and very well written, if unconventional, plot. Ultimately, Teeth is to be commended for putting a female spin on what was until now a uniquely male nightmare, and doing it very well. Definitely worth seeing, but males beware.