Writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein‘s feature debut takes high-concept to its zenith with “Teeth,” a story about the myth of vagina dentata manifest in a teenage girl named Dawn. With an opening bird’s-eye view onto a family home scored to Danny Elfman-esque music, the film quickly establishes the atmosphere of a grim fairy tale: A primal I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours encounter between a young Dawn and soon-to-be stepbrother Brad (John Hensley) leaves the boy sans fingertip. This memory, repressed by both, hangs heavy over the present day, which finds our pretty, blond heroine overzealously active in a chastity group, and multiply pierced Brad interested only in anal sex. But beneath these outre, campy trappings, Lichtenstein otherwise imagines a fairly standard coming-of-age trajectory, as “Teeth” intriguingly, if awkwardly, morphs into an exploration of burgeoning, unique female sexuality and its empowering possibilities.
Dawn is rendered anomalous from the start, not only by the motivational speeches she gives regarding “purity” on the lecture circuit, but by hilariously apt particulars like the clothes she wears — one day a T-shirt featuring a unicorn, on another a pink cotton top with “I’m waiting” scrawled over a drawing of two gold bands tied together — and her bedroom walls, adorned by frilly, little-girl classics like hearts, flowers, and butterflies. Subconsciously dialing back her development to prepubescence, she happily keeps knowledge of her body and its urges at bay — that is, until she meets the guy that finally flips her sexual switch on. First introduced to Tobey (Hale Appleman) after one of her talks, she fights the attraction but soon relents. She makes a date to meet him at the local swimming hole where, after shy kisses, she moves into the acknowledged make-out (and more) spot for the high-school set: a symbolically vaginal cave. There, in a tricked-out corner ready-made for shagging, Dawn for the first time discovers her anatomical difference when dreamboat tries to rape her.
Horrified, she flees, and makes an appointment with a gynecologist (cue the spot-it-coming joke when she tenses up, prompting the doctor to say, “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna bite you”) only to leave more blood and dismemberment in her wake. With her mother sick in the hospital and stepfather bedside, Dawn has no one to turn to; and so she runs into the arms of the nearest thing, which happens to be Ryan (Ashley Springer) — who quickly reveals himself as yet another cretin. But this time Dawn’s mad as hell, and she’s not gonna take it anymore: She wields those hidden pearlies as a weapon and, thus, the birth of a superhero . . . enter the Toothed Vagina Avenger! From here on out, she embraces her aberration as a gift — she can, literally, fuck her way out of anything. Lichtenstein highlights the comic book CRUNCH! angle via an iconic shot of Dawn standing in the foreground at the ultimate moment, her back to the audience as she faces the latest villain, legs in wide stance as she unclenches . . . and lets fall between her legs the offending body part.
As played by Jess Weixler, Dawn progresses from willful naivete to emboldened woman, growing more beautiful as she develops confidence in her newly discovered powers. Her performance keeps even-keeled an easily ridiculous character, but the film around her, though fascinatingly conceived, flails and then trails off. Seeking to strike a tonal balance between sincerity and satire, Lichtenstein falters, his schlock horror tactics chafing against his attempted feminism. And as brazen as it wants to be, the answer to the looming question — does it actually show the toothed avenger? — is no, a glaring absence given that “Teeth” hardly shies away from graphic depictions of decapitated penises. The neglect is made more untenable in that the movie takes special care to comment upon the hypocrisy surrounding the taboo when the sex-ed teacher haltingly endeavors to defend the state school board’s censorship of a diagram of the female anatomy even though the equivalent male version survives in the textbook — a slight the scene infers will later be rectified within the film itself. So ironically enough, you could say “Teeth” has no bite.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a staff writer at Reverse Shot.]