First-time feature filmmaker Tamara Jenkins grew up Jewish and hand-to-mouth in the shadow of Southern California affluence in the 1970s, schlepping with her brothers from one crummy apartment to another in the custody of her divorced father. Like any teen, she suffered the usual insecurities: body image, stuff about sex. That she came to terms with the big picture is all very well, but what’s really impressive is that Jenkins has made such a quirky, tender, smart-mouthed movie about it. Slums of Beverly Hills has the kind of big heart, strong voice, vivid look, and original sense of humor many young artists — particularly young female artists — don’t find until they’re riper, and some never find at all.
I separate the girls from the boys because to make an honest movie about emerging female sexuality (the breasts that sometimes make statements for which the owner of the breasts isn’t prepared; the mystery of menstruation) is still such a novelty that many girls don’t want to risk it. (Yikes, what if boys are grossed out?) Yet here’s big-busted Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne from Everyone Says I Love You, a comic discovery reminiscent of a young Julie Kavner), learning about brassieres, vibrators, and the weird boy next door (Kevin Corrigan), while holding the household together for her two brothers and endur-
ing the distracted worldview of her schlemielish dad (Alan Arkin). ”I hate us. We’re freaks,” she complains. And still, Vivian’s never so disoriented by her class-conscious Beverly Hills surroundings that somewhere in the midst of her misery she doesn’t appreciate just how horribly funny her freaky life is. (Her relationship to her Jewishness, at once exasperated and matter-of-fact, is terrifically cliché-busting.) Nor does she shut down her capacity to connect to other humans; a flaky cousin (Marisa Tomei) who moves in while trying to stay off drugs becomes Vivian’s unlikely guide to female extravagance.
At times Jenkins loses control of her material, and a labored zaniness threatens to exhaust the novelty. But more often, her integrity keeps the story light and warm. And in this she’s assisted by a high-energy (yet disciplined) cast, particularly the endearingly brazen Lyonne and the enduringly complex Arkin. The love-hate mishegoss packed into this father-daughter relationship is worth any tsuris Jenkins put up with to get here. B+