"Teeth" is the "Incredible Hulk" of sex satires. When boys take advantage of sweet, vestal Dawn (Jess Weixler) they lose their penises. This girl might have a flower. But the flower has mandibles.
As amateurishly made as it is, "Teeth" runs on a kind of angry distrust toward boys. It doesn't think a lot of them, in much the same way certain teen comedies and horror films don't think highly of girls. The reversal is a lot more satisfying to watch, both as a laughing feminist critique of horniness and as a gleeful inversion of the vagina dentata myth. It's all the more striking because the movie has been written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, a 51-year-old man.
Dawn is an enthusiastic young voice in a high-school chastity group. It's treated like a cult. She preaches the sanctity of holding out, wearing a little red promise ring on her finger. Her one sex fantasy is set on her wedding night. The groom hikes up her dress, but then the image of the snapping jaws she saw in an old science-fiction movie pops into her head. When one nice kid suddenly forces himself on Dawn, Dawn's jaws force themselves on him. She's horrified, does an Internet search, discovers she might actually have the fabled vagina dentata, and consults a gynecologist.
Until that gynecologist visit, everything about the movie is forced. For about 40 minutes or so, "Teeth" is a comedy whose gags don't work. One shot in a forest starts by staring into the hollow part of a tree, and when Dawn and a chaste suitor go swimming they wind up exploring a cave. The movie's early tone isn't outlandish enough to get a real laugh. Having that little house of Dawn's nestled at the foot of a smoking nuclear reactor is a touch that's simultaneously discreet and too much. (Is that why Dawn's mother is dying?) For about an hour you're desperate for the cheap irreverence of John Waters, which is there once Dawn tries to flee the doctor's examination table while the doctor's arm is still stuck in her teeth.
Part of the reason you're nervous to find this funny is because you're waiting for Dawn to find it funny, too - or you're waiting for Jess Weixler to. And for almost 40 minutes, it seems like the movie might be humming along at the expense of both the character and the woman playing her. But eventually Lichtenstein hands the movie over to his star, who proves remarkably game for the silliness she's required to perform. Weixler gets a joke that initially seemed to be on her. She delivers the cues for the movie's comedy.
Lichtenstein is the son of the artist Roy Lichtenstein, and that oversize, sometimes-funny-sometimes-not sensibility must be genetic. As a director, Mitchell's glee in showing actual severed penises probably owes more to the Troma film house than to anybody else. But watching the movie, I thought about the taunting, damning work of certain artists labeled as "feminist" - Georgia O'Keeffe, Barbara Kruger, and Joyce Wieland, for starters. In that vein, there's something almost subversive about Lichtenstein's affection for his heroine and the pleasure she ultimately takes in re-appropriating a misogynistic myth. By the end of the film she's not some virginal damsel. She's on the verge of becoming a vaginal vigilante.