Teeth (2007)

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Teeth
Dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein
Premiered at Sundance January 19, 2007

C’mon. You know this one. You’ve never seen it, but you know. Ever since it came out at Sundance 2007, Teeth has been more reputation than movie.

Jess Weixler plays Dawn O’Keefe, an assiduously chaste high schooler whose aversion to sexuality in all its myriad forms conceals a secret unknown even to herself: she suffers from vagina dentata, a mythical affliction that gives her shark-like teeth in her vagina– though maybe it has something to do with the nuclear power plant near her house that’s also slowly killing her mother (Vivienne Benesch).

Maybe “suffers” isn’t the right word, because Dawn’s teeth start to come in handy, first to  ward off a sudden rape by her erstwhile crush (Hale Appleman) with deadly results, before realizing that she is in control of this “mutation.” As the casualties mount and Dawn’s innocence morphs into violent cynicism, Teeth gleefully devolves into the kind of supernatural revenge fantasy that actual teenage girl might engage in, and which is scary and silly in equal measures. Or at least tries.

Teeth falls squarely into the “inspired but unskilled” category, as you might expect from a directorial debut. The horror and the humor are there in the script, and Weixler as Dawn knocks it out of the park even when she doesn’t say anything, but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. It’s just slightly too bland, the colors too pale, the camera too staid, the pace just a little too slow.

The lack of style is compounded by the film’s rather misaimed sexuality. Director Mitchell Lichtenstein is gay, and his apparent inability to properly male-gaze Dawn is a big problem in a movie predicated on, for lack of a better phrase, killing the audience’s boner. Occasionally, the movie he intended breaks through, but without the proper buildup, Teeth is just “consistently almost good.”

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Teeth’s production came at the apex of power for the American Evangelical Right (for more information see Jesus Camp), and the emphasis on purity culture is very timely. It’s heavily implied that Dawn subconsciously gravitates toward chastity as a coping mechanism for her mutation, but it’s not just her: the unnamed state she lives in has banned the depiction of female genitalia in textbooks.

How Did It Do?
A year after premiering at Sundance, distributor Roadside Attractions released Teeth into just sixteen theaters. Naturally, it only grossed $347,578 in the US. It did significantly better in Europe, but only relatively, as it only ever grossed $2.3 million worldwide.

While it probably made its money back (it looks like it cost less than $1 million), I am not remotely surprised that Teeth didn’t make a lot of money. Even if its release hadn’t been pitifully limited, I distinctly remember this being a movie that everyone knew about but nobody saw. The type of horny teenage boys that would have been interested in seeing it in the first place were also the type too embarrassed to be seen watching it in a public theater, and social horror genre did not have the adult audience in 2007 that it does today. However, critics were surprisingly favorable, earning a 79% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.

Had more people seen it, perhaps Jess Weixler would have had a more successful career. Mind you, she gets plenty of work, but her eyes, smile, and ability to say some really stupid shit with a straight face should have destined her for more. Even more unfortunately, Mitchell Liechtenstein’s debut film has also proven his peak; his second film Happy Tears made only $22,464, and his third Angelica simply languished in the festival circuit.

Next Time: War/Dance

 

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