Appellate Judge Tom Becker discovers that vagina dentata is not a song from The Lion King.
Vagina dentata is a cultural myth about women who have teeth in their vaginas. These stories are told (obviously) to warn young men about the dangers of sex—and the dangers of women in general.
According to legend, it takes a special man—a hero, specifically—to overcome this accursed thing and make the woman into, um, a woman.
The virginal heroine of Teeth suffers from this affliction. Well, actually, she doesn't suffer as much as some of the randy boys in her sleepy suburban hometown.
Facts of the Case
Dawn (Jess Weixler, The Big Bad Swim) lives in picturesque suburbia—in the shadow of a cheery pair of nuclear cooling towers—with her mom, step-dad, and surly, tattooed, heavy-metal, doper step-brother, Brad (John Hensley, Nip/Tuck). Dawn could not be more different from Brad: the clean-living teen is a leader of her high school's abstinence program (The Promise) and proudly wears a red ring that symbolizes purity.
When she meets a cute fellow abstainer, sparks start to fly, so she puts on the brakes. Later, she has a change of heart and calls him for an innocent rendezvous. But when things turn steamy, he won't let up, despite Dawn's protests.
Just when her "purity" is about to be compromised, Dawn discovers that she possesses a special set of jaws—and her bite is definitely worse than her bark.
Teeth is great fun, a dark and sharp satire that sets its tone right away and never loses its footing. With a clever script and deft direction by Mitchell Lichtenstein, along with near-perfect performances, this one's a winner.
Lichtenstein's gaze is more wry than jaundiced. The abstinence-promising teens—complete with t-shirts bearing Freudian-looking red ring symbols—aren't shown to be stupid or clueless; in fact, there's something endearing about their sincerity and dedication to their "pledge," particularly in a world where sex is inescapably advertised on every billboard, featured in every movie, and seemingly on everyone's mind. At The Promise meetings, the kids and adults talk of not giving away your "gift," the dangers of "serpents," and of course, emphasizing that the Garden of Eden was lost through the efforts of both Eve and Satan.
The characters who are not abstainers aren't shown to be happier, healthier, or better adjusted; on the contrary, the males are shallow predators, and the one sexually active female is a victim. The only well-adjusted people seem to be Dawn's parents, who chuckle wistfully about their own less-than-pure youth ("Things were different then," they explain).
When Dawn's extra set of choppers get into the act, things get tense and gory (and particularly cringe inducing to this XY-chromosomed reviewer).
Lichtenstein has a good time juggling genres and conventions, and the film easily transitions from social satire to teen comedy to horror movie and back again. All the elements in this low-budget effort—from the music to the set design to the costumes—come together nicely to create a singular world that is awfully recognizable.
None of this would work without a strong leading lady, and Lichtenstein's got that in spades. Weixler—who bears a bit of a resemblance to Laura Dern in her Smooth Talk days—is outstanding, playing Dawn straight and sympathetically. There's no winking in this performance, no indulgent parody. Dawn is not a fanatic, just a purposeful "good" girl. She's smart, pretty, and sensible, respects her parents, enjoys her life, and really believes in The Promise. As written and acted, Dawn is a fully formed character, and her transformation from naïve girl who discovers a horrifying secret about her anatomy to a young woman who becomes "empowered" by turning this lemon into lemonade is wholly believable.
Weixler gets great support from her co-stars. John Hensley is funny and creepy as step-brother Brad, whose life is more affected by his sister's secret than he realizes. Ashley Springer, Hale Appleman, and Josh Pais turn in very good work as some of the guys who are, unfortunately, tempted by Dawn's young flesh.
Dimension Films does a nice job with this release. While there's some noticeable grain in some of the darker scenes, overall the picture quality is very good here, picking up the colors and nuances of the set design. Audio is a solid 5.1 surround track. For a single-disc release of a small film, there's a nice slate of extras, primarily a 29-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. We get most of the cast and production crew talking about their individual contributions as well as the themes of the film. This is not a back-slapping puff piece; it's one of the better "Behind-the-Scenes" shorts I've seen, and it really enhances the experience that is Teeth. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Lichtenstein's commentary, which is spotty and bland, often pointing out the obvious ("There's so-and-so, who was just great here"). Also included are some deleted scenes (some of which are pretty good), a trailer and TV spot for the film, and trailers for other films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is another one of those that's just not going to be for everyone. Besides the impressive, if somewhat comical, gore, some people are going to be put off by the notion that faith-based abstinence groups are repressive forces that encourage behavior and mindsets no less troubling than sexual promiscuity.
Plus, it's about a vagina with teeth.
Fresh, funny, and original, Teeth is a real find. Highly recommended.
Not guilty—now, get that thing away from me!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
• Commentary with Writer/Director Mitchell Lichtenstein
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