“I don't understand it. Why don't girls like it when they get big breasts? If I were a girl with big breasts, I'd be happy.”

Deep in the conference-room bowels of the Hotel Nikko, writer-director Tamara Jenkins has been fielding questions like this one all day. Most of them she considers “translation issues”: Several journalists who can't figure out why anyone in the world would feature the menstrual blood of a 15-year-old girl in a movie (a spot shows up on a chair after a dinner party), one who complains that he “just doesn't think teenagers are that obsessed with sex.” I take this to mean girl teenagers in particular. Of the many things in Jenkins' new movie, The Slums of Beverly Hills, that shouldn't be shocking but turn out to be anyway, one is that her young protagonist, Vivian, played by Natasha Lyonne, chooses when and where to lose her virginity. The event is neither revelatory nor traumatic; it's just something she wants out of the way. “I don't think she's obsessed with sex,” Jenkins insists of her character. “She's obsessed with anatomy – she's figuring out how to operate the equipment without a manual.”

The first time I met Jenkins, in early September 1997, she was shooting in those very slums, the land of “dingbat” apartment complexes – the cheap, Beverly Hills- adjacent stucco-and-stone boxes painted beige and pink and given aristocratic names like “Beverly Arms” and “Camelot Court.” She'd just been forced to take time out of her tight, 34-day production schedule to attend the funeral of her father, the man who inspired Jenkins to write Alan Arkin's role as Vivian's father. I watched her direct a 30-second getaway scene that seemed to be taking much longer than it should, awed by the patient, peace-making guidance she offered her actors. I snuck away late in the evening to get ready to watch Princess Diana's funeral, feeling as if I'd eavesdropped on a dysfunctional-family dinner.

No doubt Jenkins is handling the bizarre queries of journalists who've seen too much of Hollywood and too little of life with the same even-handed tolerance. But in the end, they get less sympathy. “These guys are scaring me,” she tells me. “I can see why,” I say. “I mean, how many times have we seen boys jerking off in the movies?” It occurs to me I can't think of one, but before I have to answer for my arrogance, Jenkins comes to the rescue: “What about Portnoy's Complaint? That whole book's about jerking off! So this is the girls' version.”

Genre-bending aside, Jenkins hasn't made Philip Roth meets the Spice Girls, nor is Slums a saga of girl power. Vivian is utterly unusual because she just is; she's not standing outside herself watching her life being lived, and no one but the neighbor boy, Eliot, over whom she has comfortable control, is watching her. Her dabbling in sex is like trying on bathing suits or learning to drive. “It's not sentimentalized,” Jenkins says of Vivian's experiments, which include asking Eliot to feel her up in the laundry room and trying out the vibrator that belongs to her grown-up cousin, played by Marisa Tomei. “She's lurching through these thresholds, this period of life when your physical development moves faster than your emotional development.” But Vivian's no Lolita – her prosaic awakening is her own affair, even if her older brother can't help commenting on how “stacked” she is.

“Some men have a hard time understanding girls' sexuality when it's not fetishized, when it's just addressed biologically,” Jenkins says. And some women, too: One female writer told Jenkins that the film had “grossed her out.” But the 35-year-old director is quick to add that there are just as many people who get it. “One of my male friends told me that it felt as if his sister had left her bedroom door open a little bit and he had access to her secret world,” she says. “That, to me, was the best compliment I could get.”

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