When music touches someone, especially an impressionable kid, in a real place in their heart or mind, it can become one of the most powerful and defining experiences in life. You might recognize it as music that was meant for you, unlike any other thing you've ever seen. It can tell you that there are people who are like you, that you aren't as alone as you thought you were. And it can go a long way to defining you as a person, to embrace what hopefully is a more authentic, fully realized you (even though often it's just another artificial persona). Punk rock touched a lot of people this way.
This movie isn't really about that. It's about a girl on the periphery of this music, a girl with no perceivable talent or intelligence. She just likes the scene and wants to be a part of it, so she tries to force herself into it. She wants to be a performer, or a manager, or something. She tries to push herself onto people who seem to be connected, and it's clear she's got absolutely nothing to offer, and they dismiss her immediately.
I'm not sure Susan Siedelman, who made this movie in the midst of the punk rock zeitgeist, was really a part of it. The film doesn't really have a great feel for it, although it's heavy on the seediness of '80s Manhattan. If she had been a film student in the '50s, it probably would have been about folk music; it's just what was there when she had a camera to aim. So this is hardly the final word on the punk rock movement. Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilization got it much better.
There is always danger when making a movie about semi-literate people. Certainly anyone who dreams of being a screenwriter can come up with better dialogue than the morons in this movie. It's definitely true that people really do speak like this. It's also true that those people's lives would make shitty movies. Movies about inarticulate people need to be solid on their themes and subtexts and overarching messages. Otherwise, they likely won't justify the celluloid they're printed on.
Smithereens justifies its celluloid, just because Wren is such a fucking bust-out, and Seidelman doesn't invent a happy ending for her. She's got nowhere to go, no one who hasn't run out of patience or sympathy for her, and is left at the moment she has to seriously confront the final option of prostituting herself, an option considered and taken by many a pretty little bust-out. This certainly rang true, as much of the movie rings true, because it's all so fucking miserable. I have had a long life philosophy that we can fool ourselves into being happy, but misery must be authentic, because who the hell would lie to themselves about being miserable?
But then, there was always an inauthenticity to punk nihilism, or they'd just commit suicide. I watched Smithereens the week after the Paris terrorist attacks. It was not hard to note the irony of a massacre at a concert for a band called the Eagles of Death Metal. (Yes, I realize they aren't REALLY a death metal band) The nihilistic pose of death metal, or punk rock, or goth or any other art form that pretends to exalt death looks pretty silly when faced with real death and misery. In the end, punk was just another affected persona that, if you managed to avoid the fatal needle in your arm, was a phase you went through before you settled down, cleaned up and lived your boring normal life.
I never connected at all to the punk rock music or lifestyle, and nothing I've ever seen made me feel like I missed anything. Whatever might have attracted me to the power of the punk lifestyle was overshadowed by the grubbiness of it. Watching this movie and seeing everyone on the streets all day, or living in vans and shitty cold-water apartments, one thought constant in my mind was, god, these people must stink.
Susan Berman (IMDB indicates she has just seven acting credits in her career, stretched across 25 years) plays Wren, a feisty, curly-haired scenester. She seems somewhat tied to New York club culture (the Peppermint Lounge is prominently used as a location), but has no real commitment to the music and people beyond how much she can exploit them for financial support.
She has no income, drifts from friend to friend (whoever will take her) and unconvincingly lies about her homeless poverty. The heart of the plot is her pursuit of two men: a sweet newcomer from Montana who's living in his decrepit van (Brad Rinn) and a struggling rocker (real-life musician Richard Hell, who's quite solid as an actor).
It's interesting to view "Smithereens" in the context of other early-'80s films about young, trendy women (including Seidelman's big-budget follow-up, "Desperately Seeking Susan"). Wren's initial entrance (confidently plastering flyers with her face around the subway) suggests a spunky, independent, charismatic John Hughes heroine. Someone we'll fall in love with. So, it's a disturbing twist to discover that she's basically, well, a jerk. The girl is going nowhere fast, and there's no reason for anyone to care.
Underground legends the Feelies dominate the score, though two Hell songs appear too. A forgotten group called the Nitecaps also performs on camera. In the closing minutes, a young, skinny Chris Noth appears for a split-second as a transvestite hooker.