Jess Weixler, from

Dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein
(R) ★ ★ ½

Writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth is ostensibly a horror film, but its intent is satirical. Inspired by B-movies, this comedy — a black, black, black, black, black comedy — is built on a great premise: A teenage girl must cope with the fact that she has developed a mythical deformity, vagina dentata, meaning “toothed vagina.” But where the myth dictates that a male hero must defeat the creature, Lichtenstein levels his cold, hard indictment against the male gender, as well as the patriarchal film industry, which frequently casts women as victims. He reserves his sympathy for the girl, who is not a monster but the product of evolution; she represents womankind’s biological response to a culture that fears and represses female sexuality.

Unfortunately, despite Lichtenstein’s unabashedly feminist point of view, he loses sight of his main character. He settles into ironic detachment so deeply that he confuses her for himself. Would she be so glib so soon after being traumatized? Would she weild her sexuality so confidently after hiding for her entire life behind chastity and Christian idealism? I don’t buy it, and so I regard the rest of the film with an ambivalent shrug. It’s a put-on.

Dawn (Jess Weixler) gives an inspirational speech about virginity. She represents a group called the Promise and wears a red promise ring that she will wear until she trades it in for “that other ring.” As Lichtenstein explains on the DVD audio commentary, Dawn — aptly named, to imply a new beginning — grew up with a subconscious understanding of her unusual anatomy and chose a chaste lifestyle to avoid a knowledge of herself. But it also represents a societal standard that demands its women be virginal, objects of purity, undefiled by sexual thoughts, sexual feelings, or sexual acts. The suppression of femininity is also evident during health class, where not only can the teacher not bear to utter the word “vagina,” but where even the textbook is censored: the female diagram is covered by a gold sticker, while the male diagram is exposed, as if to say that male sexuality is acceptable and female sexuality is not.

The story is set in an idyllic Texas suburb, with a nuclear plant’s cooling towers standing ominously in the background. Could these be the source of Dawn’s mutation? Probably, but of greater import is how they come to resemble a pair of breasts, yet another symbol of feminine sexuality. How fitting that these should be the source of her new feminine power.

Weixler is the highlight of the film. Her performance, which won a Special Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival, grounds all this strangeness in emotional reality. The warmth of her first scene, explaining the Promise with a sureness of purpose, dissolves into self-doubt and self-loathing upon her awakening. The meeting is echoed later in the film’s finest scene, where she addresses a second Promise group. Lichtenstein re-establishes this setting with severe lighting and extreme close-ups of Weixler, while her audience stands rigidly, chanting about the evil inside her, the serpent. The scene is dream-like, and Weixler is astonishing in the way she expresses Dawn’s terror, dazed, unsteady, standing under the unsparing light of her peers’ judgment — God’s judgment.

But then it goes off the rails. After a series of traumas, Dawn seeks solace with her classmate Ryan, and her behavior becomes inconsistent. Her reaction to that behavior is even stranger. I wonder if Lichtenstein even remembers the girl who addressed those Promise-keepers with such dread. I imagine what Quentin Tarantino might have done with this story; he has a singular gift for turning pulp genre material into high art with a feminist bent (Death Proof, Kill Bill, Jackie Brown). He knows good camp, has a terrific ear for dialogue, and a stronger sense of character than Lichtenstein demonstrates, despite his obvious talent for subversive humor. There are raucously funny scenes that delight in the absurdity of the concept — a gynecological exam gone wrong is my personal favorite — but in the end, it’s the character who gets compromised.

The DVD includes scant extras: trailer and TV spots, and a thirty-minute making-of featurette. The feature-length commentary from Lichtenstein is mildly satisfying but doesn’t offer much more insight than can be gleaned from the film itself.