Slums of Beverly Hills [1998]

Genre: Comedy, Drama
One of the freshest, most enjoyable independent films of 1998, Slums of Beverly Hills finds both comedy and compassion in the post-puberty woes of a soon-to-be high school freshman named Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne), who has been either blessed or cursed (depending on who you ask) by breasts that have generously blossomed along with her sexual curiosity. It's not an easy time, especially since Vivian and her two brothers live a nomadic, close-knit existence with their unemployed father (Alan Arkin), who keeps moving them from one ratty apartment to another on the fringes of Beverly Hills. Joining them in their latest one-bedroom home is their flaky cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei), whose latest stint in rehab has been replaced by the half-baked goal of a nursing career. Writer-director Tamara Jenkins clearly loves these characters, and her film has the feel of good-natured autobiography, set in 1976 (without indulging phony nostalgia) and using rich, character-related comedy to express the understanding that all families are dysfunctional in their own functional way. Whether Vivian is allowing a new neighbor (indie-film regular Kevin Corrigan) to touch her breasts or taking cousin Rita's favorite vibrator for a euphoric test-drive, Jenkins and the wonderfully sardonic Lyonne maintain a fine balance of hilarity and sexual awkwardness while giving equal time to Vivian's taunting siblings and well-meaning father. Consisting of loosely connected episodes that add up to a vivid family portrait, this remarkably well-cast film will be a treat for anyone who remembers (or is still going through) the emotional minefield of adolescence. --Jeff Shannon

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