Teeth (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's often said that there's nothing new in Hollywood. That may well be true, but that doesn't stop writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein from trying in his debut feature. Teeth is not only odd but it's genre-defying. The film doesn't limit its field of choice: it's a black comedy, it's a drama about teen angst, it's a romance gone bad, it's a B-grade horror film, it's an allegory about female empowerment. All this, and in less than 90 minutes. Teeth's take-chances, take-no-prisoners-approach is refreshing but there are times when things become a little too sloppy or a little too campy for the mismatched tones and colliding approaches to fully gel. Still, this is the kind of calling card that gets filmmakers noticed and makes viewers intrigued to see what's next.

Teeth delights in taking staple situations and twisting them, sometimes violently. That's part of the fun here. You see characters going through the motions the way their predecessors have in countless teen comedies and/or horror movies but the results are decidedly different. For those weaned on the productions of John Hughes and his many copiers, the fate of Tobey (played by Hale Appleman with more than a hint of Patrick Dempsey) will be quite a shocker. There's something nasty underlying all the sweetness here. One wonders if this is what a teenage romantic comedy might look like if David Lynch had made it.

Dawn (Jess Weixler) is an average High School teenager in a backwater town. She belongs to a group of students who have agreed to save their virginity for the marriage bed. She's devoted to the cause and has become a motivational speaker. Hormones have never been a problem for Dawn until the arrival of newcomer Tobey (Hale Appleman). He stirs something within her and she's frightened that if she spends time with him, it will lead to more than just impure thoughts. So she resolves not to see him, but that doesn't stop the relationship. It leads to a place where Tobey discovers that Dawn has a biological oddity. In her case, the mythical "vagina dentate" is no myth - she really has teeth lining the inside of her vagina. And woe be unto anyone who seeks entry without permission… Meanwhile, Dawn's home life is a bigger mess than her romantic one. Her mother (Vivienne Benesch) is dying, her father (Lenny von Dohlen) is a wreck, and her step-brother, Brad (John Hensley), is a cross between a cretin and a monster. His goal in life is to be the one who claims her carefully guarded virginity. Only he doesn't know exactly how carefully guarded it is, despite having nearly lost a finger during a childhood game of "you show me yours, I'll show you mine."

Lichtenstein has fun with stereotypes. In the usual teen film, the nerd is the character who either remains as the comic relief sidekick or emerges as the romantic lead. Things start out that way in Teeth. One nerd gets knocked on his ass. The other is shy around Dawn. However, as things develop, we learn that all nerds aren't created equal. The nerds in this film may look and sound like those in all the other teen films but their motivations aren't quite as chaste. And when it comes to a fight between a wimp and a bully, the nice guy doesn't finish first.

Once the teeth get busy in Teeth, there's a fair amount of gore. It's pretty cheesy gore and I'm reasonably certain Lichtenstein expected it to get the laughs it's likely to get. In these scenes, he's aping really bad buckets-of-blood horror movies and going for the combined groan/chuckle. It's another aspect of parody in a movie that never stops poking fun at genres and conventions. It even goes over-the-top with the idea that nuclear power plants can cause mutations. (Consider the endlessly repetitive shots of the two cooling towers.) In order for the film to work, you have to be able to embrace this approach and to open yourself up to what the director is doing. He's not making a mainstream film.

One reason Teeth works is that the character of Dawn is developed as a real person. Admittedly, she's painfully naïve but that's not an insurmountable problem. (How could a girl get well past puberty and not figure out that there's something different about herself?) Outside of her religious proclivities, Dawn is treated with dignity and intelligence. The silliness and satirization whirl around her but they don't really touch her. Credit both Lichtenstein and TV actress Jess Weixler, who is excellent in this role, with achieving this. If we don't sympathize with Dawn, Teeth is a failure. And by making all the characters in her orbit such bores, it increases our willingness to go with her wherever the script takes her.

Underneath it all, as surprising as this may sound, there is actually a theme about sexual power. Teeth has an awful lot to say about how men and women relate to each other and how sexual coercion can come in all forms. It also crystallizes the argument of some men that women use sex as a weapon. In this case, however, the victimization aspect is removed. After seeing Teeth, it's difficult not to ponder how different male/female relationships would be if vagina dentate was a real phenomenon. One normally doesn't expect anything remotely thought provoking to emerge from a film as fundamentally campy as this one.

Teeth is imperfect. The uneven tone will make some viewers feel they're watching multiple movies spliced together. There are times when the allegorical nature of the plot is too obvious. And the screenplay is riddled with holes and inconsistencies. Overall, however, it's fresh and enjoyable provided it's viewed on its level. This is not an art-house masterpiece; it's a little black comedy/parody with nasty scenes of overdone gore. The intentional, knowing manner in which the production is constructed combined with the winning and three-dimensional performance by Weixler make Teeth more than just a movie with a titillating premise.

Teeth (United States, 2007)

Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Cast: Jess Weixler, John Hensley, Josh Pais, Hale Appleman, Lenny von Dohlen, Vivienne Benesch, Ashley Springer
Screenplay: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Cinematography: Wolfgang Held
Music: Robert Miller
U.S. Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2008-01-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1