Nomad's land

Slums of Beverly Hills' is a gritty, nostalgic trip through the wrong side of 90210.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 28, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Vivian Abramowitz's breasts, like every other part of her life, are completely out of control. From the neck up, she's still a baby-faced, freckly high school freshman. But ever since her sudden, halter-stressing frontal growth spurt, nobody's bothered to notice much about her above her "perfect C-cups." Her dad takes her shopping for industrial strength brassieres, her new neighbor desperately wants to cop a feel, her aunt sarcastically comments on how she's "filled out." Even her brothers can't help but gape. Some become women, and some have womanhood thrust upon them. Unfortunately for Vivian (Natasha Lyonne), everyone around her seems to assume that with cleavage comes adult-brand sophistication. But Vivian, an only daughter who somehow got stuck with a houseful of obnoxious males in her parents' divorce, doesn't know whether to rush to catch up with her body or retreat into the safety of girlhood. Either way, something's got to give.

In "Slums of Beverly Hills," writer/director Tamara Jenkins' dark, bitingly funny debut based on her own experiences growing up in California in the '70s, everybody's running away from something. Vivian's father, Murray, an aging, down-on-his-luck car salesman (Alan Arkin), drags his family from one exotically named fleabag Casa to the next, always narrowly skipping out right around the time the rent's due. Her smitten next-door neighbor, Eliot (Kevin Corrigan), is a small-time dope dealer with a collection of Charles Manson T-shirts and a bravado that crumbles at the sound of police sirens. And her cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) is, among other things, a recent escapee from rehab.

It's Rita's arrival at the Abramowitz's latest temporary lodgings that appears to, for a while, change the family's fortune. The strung-out Rita doesn't want to go back to her wealthy, controlling parents, and Murray believes if he can assume care of the girl, he can bleed his brother for a desperately needed cash infusion. His brother agrees to the deal, and Murray promptly moves the brood yet again -- this time to the kind of plush, deep-shag digs that get his kids wondering out loud whether they've graduated to middle class, white collar or even bourgeois. Too bad Rita and her uncle are, by Rita's own Valium-tinged appraisal, the family fuck-ups.

To Vivian, however, Rita represents something more -- a female ally in a house of men, a familiar face at a time when nothing, not even the furniture, sticks around for long. Her exotic cousin is just old enough to be a quasi-mother figure, just young enough to be the hip big sister who teaches her the meaning of "depilatory" and can speak to her in a private pig Latin. With her masses of dark hair, king-size hoop earrings and cinder-block platforms, Tomei looks every inch the proto Betty Ford clinic survivor. She's exuberantly, brokenheartedly unhinged -- exactly the kind of woman a lonely teenage girl would want to latch onto. It isn't long before Rita's talking Vivian into turning over her pee so she can pass a urine screening, offering her "cocktails" out of airplane vodka bottles and demonstrating the finer points of dancing around in your nightgown with a giant vibrator (which Rita flippantly refers to as "my boyfriend").

The hyper Rita is a stark contrast to Vivian's sad-sack pop -- a man old enough to see the uselessness of his niece's attempts at rehabilitation, yet too set in his ways to change his own reckless habits. He splurges on steaks at the Sizzler and keeps his family within a premium ZIP code for the "good schools" and prestige, all while failing to recognize he can no longer afford the California dream. He's a guy so driven to give to his children he can't see how badly he's messing up their lives.

But while Rita and Murray may be intriguing characters, "Slums" never strays far from its center -- it's Vivian's story from start to finish. Lyonne, who played Woody Allen's matchmaking daughter in "Everyone Says I Love You," has a world-weary voice that already suggests a lifetime of smog and cigarettes, but when her eyes widen in horror at a girlfriend's fresh nose-job or a mattress-size maxi pad, she looks for all the world like a child who has not yet lost her capacity for shock. Both Lyonne and director Jenkins understand the godawful duality of the adolescent body and soul -- the round-the-clock job it is just trying to figure out who you are at any given moment. And they've created far and away the most complex, appealing female character in a summer of soldiers, sword fighters and asteroid blasters.

Around her family, Vivian's face registers varying degrees of disgust and exasperation -- she's the one reasonable figure in a family of potheads, pill poppers and compulsive gamblers. And swinging her orange hair dryer around her neck like it's a Conair boa, dismissing her groping sessions with her neighbor as "a building thing," she's a badass in training. But alone, taking Rita's vibrator for a test spin, or watching with bald envy as two girls walk away with their doting mother, Vivian is a young woman very much in touch with her feelings. Whatever front she may have to put on to not crack up like the rest of the "freaks" she's related to, she is not yet so hardened by disappointment that she can't allow herself ecstasy or sorrow. Jenkins, perhaps because "Slums" is semi-autobiographical, isn't cynical enough to suggest Vivian is either a future codependent or Angry Young Woman to be. If she can just hang on, the movie suggests, she might even learn to treasure the specialness that comes from having a completely whacked-out upbringing.

"All happy families are like one another," Vivian quotes at the start of the film; "each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In the early scenes of "Slums," Tolstoy's dictum seems a death sentence, and Vivian's appalling relations appear as inescapable a millstone as her big breasts and bullet bra. But by the end of the movie, one is left with the definite impression that if a girl can survive in a messed-up situation, it's possible even to thrive in it. When, after secretly consulting with a plastic surgeon about breast reduction, Vivian finds herself running away in revulsion, it's not because she's afraid of the pain or the scars. It's because she realizes that those pendulous annoyances she's been lugging around come from her mother, and that her potentially fixable nose comes from her father. She can at last see all the elements of her life -- even the weird, malformed ones -- for what they are and embrace them anyway. If happy families are all alike, who wants to be like everybody else anyway?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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