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Mitchell Lichtenstein, how did you go from playing that nice, gay boyfriend in Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, to writing and directing a film like Teeth? I reckon your term as Camille Paglia’s student had something to do with this. That could be the only explanation for this surreal, quirky and clever story of the birth of an unlikely feminist superhero(ine) with a very unique power. 

Dawn is the prize of her local chastity club. The angelic-looking blonde draws followers like a moth to a virginal flame. Dawn’s commitment to her cause lifts her from the dreariness of her dysfunctional home life. Her ramshackle house is oppressively shadowed by the two nuclear towers behind it and within is the bubbling sleaze of her slimy stepbrother. Pierced and leering, Brad makes no bones about his jones for his stepsister; a childhood game of doctor gone mysteriously wrong has turned him into a sexual sadist with a mean Dawn obsession. Brad is not the only one sniffing after our dedicated Vestal, schoolmates Ryan and Tobey are also in pursuit of Dawn’s charms. Handsome Tobey uses his chastity club membership as an inroad and becomes close to Dawn, and as they begin their romance, she briefly reconsiders her vow of chastity, but not before Tobey gets a wee bit impatient and forces himself on her. I’m sure most folks have heard or uttered that oft-repeated phrase, ‘Touch me and you’ll pull back a bloody stump.’ The scene of Tobey’s folly takes those words to a whole other level. In her panic at the lessening of Tobey, Dawn seeks medical advice. Dawn’s misfortune is to find a not entirely ethical gynecologist who takes advantage of her while she’s unable to see what he’s up to. Sadly for the sleazy doctor, what her eyes can’t see, other parts of Dawn’s anatomy have got well-guarded. Without spoiling much, that guy won’t be practicing again anytime soon.  

All looks bleak for Dawn of the Deadly Vagina, until Ryan offers her a shoulder to cry on and a courageous penis to break through the fearsome wall of teeth. For the first time, Dawn is able to enjoy intercourse without guillotining her partner, and she’s exultant; not only discovering the joys of womanhood, but realising that her trust and comfort with Ryan was what brought down her sharp-toothed defenses. Unfortunately, Ryan decides to reveal his true colours mid-coitus, shamelessly informing Dawn that she was a mere conquest in a contest for school bragging rites. Watch the fun of Dawn’s timely revelation that instead of being some horrible involuntary reaction, her little piranha is hers to control.

I had a blast, Teeth was audacious, imaginative and hilarious. Much has been made in advance of the film’s release about the subject matter; the presentation of the Vagina Dentata myth being brought front and center as the basis of the plot. I’ve even read people go on about how misogynist the film must be making women’s anatomies an object of terror. To those naysayers, I give the trunklong raspberry. I don’t remember the last time I saw a more ingenious film about female empowerment. Dawn hides behind the chastity movement in order to avoid dealing with her nascent womanhood. All around her, female sexuality is regarded as a frightening thing; even her school’s sex-ed textbooks feature depictions of female anatomy covered over by big gold stickers. Once the innocent Dawn is exposed to both the good and bad aspects of sexual relationships, she learns - through some bizarre lessons - that she doesn’t have to be anyone’s victim. The teeth in the film are an outrageous metaphor for Dawn coming into her power as a woman. However, wrapped in wry, dark humour, it’s a lot of perverse fun to watch those metaphors in action. Seeing the reaction of other men in the theatre, laughing out loud while crossing their legs very tightly, was a novel experience. After Dawn has mastered her menace, her resolve to never be victimised again takes her on the road away from her hometown where she’s immediately tested in an unforgettable final scene being picked up hitchhiking by a lecherous driver. By the film’s end, Dawn has become a modern superhero for women, righting wrongs with the power of her pudendum. 

In his first feature, director Lichtenstein draws upon a lot of different genre inspirations for Teeth. You have nods to the teen films of the 80’s; horror (- Jason Voorhees was not a big fan of teenage copulation); teen sex farces (- is Dawn truly the Last American Virgin?) and the more intelligent comedy oeuvre of John Hughes reflected in our unsinkable heroine. I saw another inspiration in Teeth, that of 1950’s “B” horror films, like Them!, It Came From Outer Space and Attack of the Crab Monsters. Many of the camera angles and certainly the heightened swells of the score whenever Dawn’s defense system activates mirror the camp, overwrought thrills of those older films. Also, the theme of the fear of an unknown, uncontrollable threat, in this case Dawn’s apparent mutation, is similar to the terror struck by the invading aliens and radioactive monsters in the 1950’s epics. Teeth felt like an homage to these films rather than a spoof, similar in tone to Charles Busch’s recreation of the Davis/Crawford/Hayward melodramas, Die Mommy Die. Teeth doesn’t try to be camp; the acting is played straight, which adds to the absurdity, but it doesn’t shy away from going over the top when called for. I can’t recall ever having seen a major released film with this much male genitalia. It might’ve helped that the majority of the penii are photographed unattached to their owners. 

Jess Weixler plays Dawn and what a find she is. With her long blonde hair, porcelain skin and beatific countenance, Weixler is the perfect actress to portray an angelic girl’s plunge into a very unique hell. Never playing for laughs, Weixler’s expressive face always keeps us posted on what Dawn is feeling, and her intelligent and grounded performance is the crucial ingredient to the success of the entire proceedings. The film rests on Weixler and she carries it and runs. In my conversation with Jess Weixler, she told me she knows she’s “always gonna be the Teeth girl,” but I predict much bigger things ahead for this talented young actress. 

Daring, funny and unabashedly Indie, Teeth is an original and ingenious creation. Grab a bunch of men and go see it, just make sure they have enough room to cross their legs.


~ Mighty Ganesha

January 5th, 2008


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