Shot guerilla-style during the waning days of New York City’s original punk scene, Smithereens tells the story of Wren (Susan Berman). Wren is a Jersey girl who, after being cut off by her family, comes to New York City. She moves into a run-down apartment, get a job making photocopies at a xerox store, and tries to break into the New York punk scene, despite having no talent or connections. The only thing that Wren does have is a lot of determination. When we first meet Wren, she is stealing another woman’s sunglasses and posting flyers of herself around New York City. Written under Wren’s picture: “Do you know me?”
Throughout the film, Wren bounces back and forth between two men. Paul (Brad Rinn) is a naive artist who has just arrived from Montana. He lives in a psychedelic-painted van that he parks in an abandoned lot. Paul first spots Wren while she is covering a subway car with her pictures and he is immediately infatuated with her. Wren hangs out with Paul until she meets Eric (played by punk icon Richard Hell), a sleazy musician who has recorded one semi-successful album and who is trying to come up with enough money to leave New York for Los Angeles. After Wren gets kicked out of her apartment, she moves in with Paul while continuing to sleep with Eric until she is finally forced to choose between the two men.
When Susan Berman was cast in the role of Wren, director Susan Seidelman told her to research her role by watching Nights of Cabiria and Smithereens does feel like a New York punk version of the Fellini classic. Like Cabiria, Wren remains hopeful despite the ugliness around her. Unlike Cabiria, Wren is not a very likable character. She uses everyone that she meets and is then shocked when people hold it against her. Despite that, she is so determined that it is hard not to root for her. What is interesting is that Wren is not a malicious character. She feels that she is destined to be famous and lacks the self-awareness to understand why other people are not as into her as she is. If Smithereens were made today, Wren would be trying to get on American Idol or The Voice. Sadly, Wren was just born too early to win a spot in the Jersey Shore house.
Susan Seidelman filmed on the streets of city and much of Smithereens is a documentary of life in New York City before the Giuliani/Bloomberg administrations cleaned everything up and turned Times Square into an urban Disney World. Along with being one of the first independent American films to ever compete at the Cannes Film Festival, Smithereens was also the scriptwriting debut for future Oscar-nominated screenwriter Ron Nyswaner. Keep an eye out for actor Chris Noth, making his film debut as a cross-dressing prostitute.