Smooth Talk is based on a short story by Joyce Carol Oates which Tom Cole has adapted for the screen. Unlike many rude and crude movies about teenagers in heat, this drama about one fifteen-year-old girl's sexual awakening is a tour de force.

Connie (Laura Dern), a restless fifteen-year-old about to enter her sophomore year in high school, spends the summer moping around the house. She suffers her mother's (Mary Kay Place) put-downs while hearing nothing but praise for her older sister June (Elizabeth Berridge). Father (Levon Helm) somehow manages to float above the family tensions.

Cruising the shopping mall with her friends Laura (Margaret Welch) and Jill (Sarah Ingelis), Connie comes on strong flirting with boys. But when an actual date leads to heavy petting, she flees from the car. One day at a hamburger joint, an older man confides, "I'm watching you!" He proves it soon after. On a Sunday afternoon when the rest of the family has gone to a barbecue, the suspicious stranger — his name is Arnold Friend (Treat Williams) — pulls up to the house in a souped-up Chevy. Friend seems to know Connie's innermost thoughts and feelings about sex, family, and friends. Or perhaps he's just a daydream inspired by a hot summer afternoon. Whatever, Connie is seduced by his smooth talk and goes for a ride with him. When her parents return, she glides into the family circle with a renewed sense in relation to others.

The deliberately ambiguous finale of the story invites viewers to interpret Smooth Talk as a cautionary tale about the sexual temptations teenagers face or a parable about what is lost and what is gained by the struggle for identity outside the family circle. This open-ended film offers ample and telling observations on adolescence, mother-daughter relationships, familial tensions, and the erotic yearnings of youth.