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Teeth

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Monsters, demons, and ax-wielding maniacs are fine for most horror movies. But “Teeth” knows that if you really want to terrify male adolescents, you should capitalize on something they’re already afraid of in real life: the vagina.

From the warped imagination of Mitchell Lichtenstein (son of legendary pop artist Roy Lichtenstein) comes “Teeth,” a spoof of B-movie monster flicks, a satire of modern-day puritan ethics, and a tongue-in-cheek female-empowerment story. It’s not entirely successful at all times on every count, but at least it has some interesting ideas behind it.

Our heroine is Dawn (Jess Weixler), a goody-two-shoes high-schooler who belongs to a Christian group obsessed with sex — with not having it, specifically. They wear “promise” rings as a reminder never to do the deed until they’re married, and they talk about the subject constantly.

Obviously, such obsession with not doing something can only lead to one thing: doing it. But before we get to that point, Dawn suffers a lot of confusion. The kids at school make fun of her for being a crazy virgin. Her school’s sex-ed class uses textbooks in which diagrams of the female organs are censored, while the male diagrams are left alone. The teacher can barely stammer out the “V” word. Her mother is ill, leaving her with no strong female role models. Her stepfather (Lenny von Dohlen) is nice enough, but her stepbrother, Brad (John Hensley) is creepy, oversexual, and menacing.

Dawn hangs out with other chastity-minded teens, including a nice boy named Tobey (Hale Appleman). He finds it difficult to control his passions, though, and one day he and Dawn start to cross the line. She regains her resolve and tells him to stop; he doesn’t stop; he forces himself on her; and the teeth in her vagina bite off his willy. Let that be a lesson to you!

From there Dawn struggles to understand her body and her sexuality. She fills the role of the B-movie scientist who is slowly undergoing a transformation: terrified of what’s happening to her, trying to harness her powers, running from one horrific situation to the next.

Lichtenstein maintains a playful attitude throughout the film, filling the frames with visual puns (trees with vagina-shaped holes) and verbal ones (“There’s dinner, if you want a bite,” stepdad Bill says when Dawn comes home after the Tobey castration. “No thanks, I ate,” she says). The film follows a classic monster-movie structure, but it’s meant as a comedy, not a thriller. True to form, however, we never do see the “monster.”

Jess Weixler won a special prize at Sundance for her performance as Dawn, and she deserves it. Dawn is not an easy role to play. She has to be innocent, naive, smart, frightened, and bold all at once, and Weixler has to make her seem real and believable despite the fantastical premise. Weixler, a 25-year-old actress with only a couple minor credits to her name before now, manages all of this with the aplomb of a seasoned veteran.

Some of the film’s story elements don’t quite come together. There’s no apparent reason for the sick-mother character to even be in the film, and Bill’s decision to kick Brad out of the house is ill-explained. Those are rookie mistakes, I think; Lichtenstein has his act together in almost every other regard. “Teeth” will appeal to a niche market, for sure — randy, pop-culturally savvy 20-year-olds — but its wit has some real bite to it.

B (1 hr., 27 min.; R, a lot of nudity, some strong sexuality, several scenes with blood and gore.)

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