When I sat down to watch the new comedy "Slums of Beverly Hills," I expected to laugh. I've loved Marisa Tomei ever since I saw "My Cousin Vinny," and I heard my parents say good things about Alan Arkin and Carl Reiner. I'd seen Natasha Lyonne, the movie's star, in bit parts in other films, most notably as Woody Allen's daughter in "Everyone Says I Love You."
What I didn't expect was a beautifully acted, touching, sensitive and very bizarre, hilarious movie about a subject that Hollywood typically does not deal with honestly: growing up.
The thing that makes "Slums" such a unique film is that it deals with the coming of age of a teen-age girl in a sort-of contemporary setting (1970s Beverly Hills). While there have been movies and plays made about adolescent girls ("Little Women," "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "The Diary of Anne Frank"), most of them are not as easy for girls growing up in the '90s to relate to.
There are universal, timeless themes that every girl understands, no matter what the era: feelings of loneliness, not fitting in, first love, first sexual experience, etc. But "Slums of Beverly Hills" deals with the sordid details that filmmakers, particularly modern ones, are not so eager to take on.
For some, this may just be a really funny movie, but if you look closer, you see that it is an important step in bringing girls' real experiences out of the dark closet in which they have been kept for so long. People, especially Hollywood moguls, teachers, parents and censors, don't like to hear about teen sexuality, especially female sexuality. This movie focuses on the main character's bosom as a symbol of her growing up and her own and everyone else's ambivalence to the changes in her and the new feelings she has about herself and her family.
This movie does not shy away from the things that make adults squeamish. It is an unapologetic, autobiographical (the author of the screenplay had similar experiences growing up in her poor, Jewish family in 1970s Beverly Hills) and completely honest look at one girl's coming of age.
Seldom do I see a character in a contemporary film with whom I can so closely identify. Look at the female stars of current "teen" movies: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, etc. I cannot relate to them. I do not have perfect hair, makeup, body and wardrobe. I do not act or speak like they do.
That's why it was such a relief to come across the wonderful Lyonne, who personifies, in this movie, a realistic female adolescent. Here is a character whose outfits are uncoordinated, whose hair is a mess, who dances and sings along with the radio when she is alone. Here is a girl who doesn't scream or faint when she sees blood, particularly her own. Here is a girl who is in charge of her sexuality. Though she is initially ambivalent about her breasts, and even consults a plastic surgeon, she eventually comes to accept them, which leads to her gradual acceptance of herself, her strange, dysfunctional family, and their social status. She emerges triumphant from potentially traumatic situations; no matter what happens, Vivian Abramowitz always has her head held high.
"Slums of Beverly Hills" is an honest movie that deals with people as human beings, rather than as caricatures or stereotypes. Unlike most movies that deal with female sexuality, Vivian is not punished for her choices; she doesn't end up feeling dirty, getting dumped, getting pregnant or getting a disease.
When people are mean to her, she stands her ground. She doesn't allow herself to be silenced by society's double standards. She is a great role model for teen girls, and she is a great role model for human beings.
Raina Lipsitz is a junior at City Honors High School.