It sounds like a bad TV pilot about a Jewish girl-child, parents divorced, growing up on the shabby side of Beverly Hills in 1976: Vivian (Natasha Lyonne), 15, copes with her ballooning boobs, boys fixated on boobs (“Nice rack, babe”), two brothers (David Krumholtz and Eli Marienthal) with a similar fixation, and a father, Murray (Alan Arkin), who asks that Vivian “put on a brassiere.” Murray also asks that his brood move from one tacky apartment to another to avoid landlords and losing out on the Beverly Hills public-school system.
What lifts this brash comedy above the vulgar herd is Tamara Jenkins in a heartfelt feature debut as writer and director. Jenkins shows an innate gift for lacing laughs with the pain of experience — Slums is based on her own life. Her handling of the actors is equally adept. Lyonne shifts keys from tough to tender without hitting a false note. Marisa Tomei is strikingly good as Rita, the rehab princess and vibrator user whom Murray shelters in return for cash from his rich brother Mickey (Carl Reiner), Rita’s dad. Arkin shows the toll that this pride-swallowing takes on Murray, who even gropes his niece for the comfort of sex. Rita extricates herself in time to save both their feelings; it’s Vivian, peeking at the door, who is slower to dig out of the emotional maze. The scene is comic and piercingly sad, filled with the haunting ambiguity that marks Jenkins as a talent to watch.