WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Lonely teenager Sylvie ‘Coop’ Cooper befriends a bright but wild contemporary she calls Ivy, who quickly becomes a fixture in the Cooper household. Initially, neither grizzled father Darryl nor ailing mother Georgie are keen on the cuckoo in the nest; however, Ivy manipulates them both to her advantage, pulling one and pushing the other, to Sylvie’s growing horror.
Sylvie Cooper (Sara Gilbert) is an introverted, introspective rebel without a friend, smoking and getting shapes cut in her hair in an unsuccessful effort to get noticed by her schoolmates or her parents. When a brassy, provocatively-dressed girl (Drew Barrymore) comes into town, ‘Coop’ writes her off as a slut; but she’s also intrigued and the pair bond over detention, Sylvie naming the girl ‘Ivy’ after the tattoo on her thigh.
Ivy’s uninterested aunt doesn’t care when Ivy moves into chez Cooper, but although it’s a swanky place, it’s not a happy home: depressive mother Georgie (Cheryl Ladd) is dying of emphysema, rising from her bed only to bitterly fulminate about her life, while opinionated, former alcoholic father Darryl (Tom Skerritt) is desperately trying to hold on to his job managing a TV station. Although the relationship is based on Ivy spending Coop’s money, the latter is happy just to have a friend. Georgie also comes to rely on Ivy and after a party Darryl throws for his bosses, Ivy seduces him, having made sure Coop is elsewhere. Despicable behaviour, but Ivy is capable of much, much worse…
Poison Ivy‘s story is, to all intents and purposes, thoroughly reprehensible. Though neither Ivy nor Coop are given ages, Barrymore and Gilbert were seventeen at the time of the film’s release, so were clearly of a tender-ish age despite Drew’s much-publicised troubles and Sara’s extensive experience in TV’s Roseanne. As such, the film is treading on dangerous, Lolita-like territory and you have to ask who it’s for. If it’s for dirty old men looking for simulated underage rumpy (albeit with a plethora of cutaways and use of a body double), then shame on it (and them); however, their patience will be tested by Sylvie’s teenage angst which takes precedence over the sensuous but fairly brief sex scenes. On the other hand – quite apart from the certification – teenagers who might identify with Coop will surely be freaked out by the gross Old Man Sex (I’m no great judge of these matters, but Skerritt is surely a less credible DILF (no?) than, say, Kevin Spacey in American Beauty).
It’s not as if Poison Ivy has much to distinguish it as a piece of cinema: it’s shot in workmanlike fashion, and the plot relies on one hoary device – Ivy absent-mindedly humming an incriminating tune – and the characters accepting one shaky premise: when Ivy crashes Georgie’s precious Corvette, she makes out that Coop was driving the car, even though Coop’s head clearly goes through the passenger side of the windscreen; Ivy then continues lovemaking without Darryl ever seeing the steering wheel bruise across her chest (though she is facing away from him when…well, you know). As for subplots, there’s a single scene in which Darryl’s instability costs him his job, but it has no bearing whatsoever on the film as a whole.
If you can cope with the film’s exploitative bent, however, Poison Ivy works rather well as a sleazy, teenage variation on Fatal Attraction. It chimes in perfectly with the ‘home invasion’ theme, prevalent in the late eighties and early nineties, that says some piece of poor trash is going to ruin your affluent life and take away your nice things (see also The Hand that Rocks the Cradle or Single White Female). The action is competently staged and ratchets up to a semi-hallucinogenic climax, the lack of subplot (Ivy’s history is barely explored) meaning that it’s uncomplicated by nuance or pointless diversions. The film runs at around an hour and a half and very little of that time is wasted.
Poison Ivy is also a fairly powerful psycho-drama, which doesn’t just mean a drama featuring a psycho. Although Ivy’s acquisitiveness, and what she’ll do to acquire what she wants, is key to the plot, her cruelty is more interesting: she picks on Coop as soon as she befriends her, taking advantage in the knowledge that Sylvie’s desperate need for friendship will override her qualms. Furthermore, the way in which Ivy usurps Mrs Cooper’s position in both Darryl and Sylvie’s lives, offering them both (in different ways) an intimacy that Georgie has long since rejected, is fascinating. The scene in which Sylvie joins Ivy in her mother’s bed is key in this respect and contrasts with the film’s earthier scenes. It’s important that Gilbert and Barrymore can really act and they do well, Gilbert in particular striking the right balance as the hacked-off, intelligent loner confused by her feelings for her dangerously sexualised ‘friend’. Skerritt and Ladd are perfectly fine, but the movie belongs to the girls.
In my review of Clueless I mention that it has questions to answer over its legacy. That accusation goes double for Poison Ivy, which (I read) spawned an increasingly sordid series of sequels built around the sex scenes rather than the plot. This movie is provocatively sexual at times, which many will find extremely distasteful given the ages of those involved; however, unlike the sequels, the story takes precedence here and results in a concise, psychologically meaty movie with a tangible atmosphere of danger surrounding Ivy wherever she goes, from the first frame to the last. I’m just not sure that I’d be comfortable actively recommending it to anyone.