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The Boston Phoenix Breast Strokes

Director Tamara Jenkins busts out

By Alicia Potter

AUGUST 31, 1998:  Breasts figure prominently in writer/director Tamara Jenkins's tender and vibrant semi-autobiographical debut. Most conspicuous are the voluptuous proportions of 14-year-old Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne), who is snapping into her first bra, a Cross Your Heart that looks downright bulletproof. Surveying her reflection in the dressing-room mirror, she pokes the two white polyester peaks of her bosom and wails: "I'm deformed!"

Her ample chest, however, isn't the only thing Vivian believes makes her "a freak." It's the summer of '76, and her 65-year-old father (Alan Arkin, in top form) is schlepping Vivian and her two brothers from one drab Beverly Hills duplex to another. Sort of a Jewish George Jefferson, he's hell-bent on giving his kids a 90210 education, even if it means the family forgoes luxuries (like furniture). For Vivian, it's a nomadic life of escalating humiliation: she's poor in a glitzy zip code; her developing chest is a family spectator sport, and with her mother mysteriously back east, it's her crusty dad, Murray, who accompanies her on the amusing brassiere-buying expedition.

Enter Rita (Marisa Tomei). Vivian's older, pill-popping cousin escapes from rehab and moves in, opening a whole new world for the tortured teenager. In the male-dominated Abramowitz household, Rita's a hyperkinetic pocket rocket of female energy: she spills secrets, speaks in gibberish, and whips out her "boyfriend," a vibrator that sounds like a single-engine aircraft taking off. But when Murray courts an uptight, wealthy widow (Jessica Walter), it's Vivian who inherits the responsibility of babysitting her loose-cannon cousin.

What ensues is a blackly comic coming of age in which Vivian agonizes over her social class, her Jewishness, and, of course, her breasts. At the heart of the film is frizzy-haired Lyonne's deadpan, utterly hilarious portrayal of the neurotic rigors of female adolescence. Wearing the mammary equivalents of Mark Wahlberg's prosthetic penis in Boogie Nights, Lyonne plants Vivian at an anguished crossroads: does her new body disgust her or fascinate her? Realistically, it's a little of both. When Vivian lifts her sweater to accommodate a grope from her freaky neighbor (a subtly devious Kevin Corrigan), she does so with all the detachment of someone unveiling a microwave (at least in the beginning).

Breasts play, yes, a big role in Jenkins's debut, but ultimately it's a comedy about overcoming indignity -- the indignity of sexual objectification, of rejection, of hardship. When Vivian overhears her father, his face as tight and beady-eyed as a snapping turtle's, groveling for a loan from his brother (Carl Reiner, in a blustering cameo), she learns that humiliation doesn't end at adolescence.

Jenkins has a lot to say and, shrewdly, she doesn't play it all for laughs. But rather than weighting the comedy with portentousness, she maneuvers a clash of emotions without ever wavering in tone. At one point, the youngest Ambramowitz, Rickey (Ely Marienthal), the picture of vulnerability in tiny BVDs, pounds on his snoozing big brother Ben (David Krumholtz) to "take back" a comment about their father's being "a senior citizen." The scene conjures a child's primal fears of mortality and abandonment, but Jenkins kisses off any possible cuteness or sentimentality. When Ben does, indeed, "take it back," Rickey scoots into the comfort of Ben's bed, only to sink into the malodorous haze of his brother's farts.

Indeed, in a summer that's already seen its share of ribald humor, Jenkins adds menstrual blood and a dead cat to the fray. The director isn't one to pass up a sight gag or a bawdy laugh. This is always treacherous territory, and she occasionally strains too hard. A scene involving Vivian and a urine sample goes overboard, and let's just say the Abramowitz boys spend a lot of time in their underwear.

But this director, -- part Judy Blume, part Mike Leigh -- does triumph at mining her home turf of porticoes and palm trees for an original family portrait. The latest writer/director to join a wave of memoirist filmmakers (Susan Skoog's Whatever and Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66 debuted earlier this summer), she recycles an impoverished, chaotic, and even painful upbringing into rich storytelling. With her wry touch, Jenkins, like the Abramowitzes, will surely be moving on up.

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