50 Movies for 50 States Part Two: The `80s — #16 – Kansas, Film – Nice Girls Don't Explode

#16 – Kansas, Nice Girls Don’t Explode

Nice Girls Don't Explode (1987), produced by Nice Girl Films and distributed by New World Home Video, directed by Chuck Martinez, written by Paul Harris, with Barbara Harris, Michelle Meyrink, William O'Leary and Wallace Shawn, cinematography by Stephen M. Katz, original music by Brian Banks and Anthony Marinelli, editing by Wendy Phifer Mate, filmed in Lawrence, Kansas

I always enjoy it when I can impart some wisdom on you, my readers, that you likely will not get from someplace else. For instance: Were you aware that, in the 1980s, the state of Kansas produced some of the most interesting and original films I’ve seen since beginning this here virtual road show? I guess something about being stuck  in the middle of nowhere really stirs up the creative juices. Or maybe it’s living so close to the “alternative” explosion of the 1990s when a quirky film such as this might be embraced rather than be doomed to obscurity.

Or maybe it’s just the tornadoes.

It’s the tornadoes, right?

Nice Girls Don’t Explode is a coming-of-age tale about a young woman, April Flowers (played by Michelle Meyrink, a dead ringer for Selma Blair). Young Ms. Flowers lives in a John Watersesque dystopian suburban world of baked goods and rotary clubs and random acts of arson.

Arson, you say? Why, yes. This is Nice Girls Don’t Explode, is it not? Arson is crucial to the plot of the film in two ways.

The first way is in the way April’s mom — billed simply as “mom” — keeps her daughter’s hormones in check. Since April was a young girl, she has been told by “mom” that she is a psychic fire starter — that is to say that she has the ability to start fires with her thoughts. While this might sound like a useful power to have at a weenie roast, for example, or a book burning, unfortunately April does not have full control over when these fires occur. However, April’s mother has pointed out to her that the fires always seem to happen when she comes into contact with boys. Get it? Naughty girls start fires. Nice Girls Don’t Explode.

Sound far-fetched? Of course it does. In a “twist” you find out about 15 minutes into the film, you find out the whole psychokinetic fire starting thing is a hoax created by “mom” to keep her daughter’s hormones in check.

“Dad”, by the way, is no where to be seen and April has no brothers or sisters — just a pet cat. It’s the perfect environment for parental brainwashing of the most devious sort.

“Mom”, played by Academy Award-nominated actress and Nashville standout Barbara Harris, is kind of a psycho and a whiz at making things go “boom”. In the montage which reveals her ruse, “mom” is seen packing tiny remote-control explosive devices into lumps of dough. Later, when April goes out on a date, mom — packing her miniature IEDs — follows closely behind in the shadows looking for any sort of romantic spark. When she spots funny business, all it takes is a quick flick of the wrist to send one of her homemade dough bombs into a flowerpot or under a dining table or into the backseat of April’s suitor’s convertible.

In the words of April herself, the only people with whom she seems to have second dates is firemen.

Sadly, April does not have a uniform fetish.

The other arson connection in Nice Girls Don’t Explode is the character of Ellen, played by the great Wallace Shawn. Ellen, a compulsive lighter-wielding pyromaniac, befriends April after mistaking her for a fellow pyro (“You start fires?!? I start fires!)

A reoccurring gag is that Ellen is repeatedly referred to as “Helen” by people he meets, to which he always responds by pulling out his lighter, lighting it, holding it in front of his face and — staring intently into the flame.

“That’s Ellen,” Ellen says firmly.

“Because Helen would be an absurd name for a man,” according to Ellen.

Ellen later develops an infatuation for April, but the real love of her life is Tommy.

Tommy has known April ever since she was a little girl, when her mother would keep her from running away from home by tethering her to a clothesline (Seen here: It’s one of the funniest images in the movie.) Tommy, who strives to make it big in the world of competitive ping pong, doesn’t believe in all this fire-starting junk. He’s not afraid of it either, which makes mom very nervous. In a perfect world, Tommy would’ve been played by Crispin Glover.

The whole pyro angle could be written off as just some kind of gimmick — and it is a gimmick. Still, Nice Girls Don’t Explode isn’t simply weird for the sake of being weird. At its heart is a sweet, funny story to which — not just pyromaniacs — but most people can relate.

Maybe you’ve been that guy who’s pursued some cute girl with the overbearing parents or maybe you’ve been the girl. Maybe you’ve been the parents.

Maybe you’re Ellen.

The one thing that puzzles me is that director Chuck Martinez seemingly dropped off the radar after Nice Girls Don’t Explode. Aside from a few scattered television acting roles, Chuck only has two other directing credits — the television show The Adventures of Superboy and a movie The Effects of Magic for Showtime. Off-screen, Chuck has done some work in theater as well as marketing and manufacturing. according to his IMDb resume.

So what gives, Chuck? Maybe you’ll be out there Googling yourself and you’ll come across this review. Were the critics unfairly harsh to Nice Girls Don’t Explode when it was released? Was shooting the film an unpleasant experience?

Nice Girls Don’t Explode proves that just because a film goes straight-to-video doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Great films are mishandled by distributors all the time. A movie like this should be a cult classic. Instead, it’s an obscure oddity that — if not for the Internet — would be all but forgotten.

Next week: Louisiana

50 Movies for 50 States Contest Scoreboard

@iceybloop – 2

@ZeekZombieMan – 1

@DraconicVerses – 2

@VicarOfVHS – 2

@ghwalters – 4

@lowdudgeon – 2

@unclegeeky – 2

@LCosgrove – 6

@GCDB – 2

Every Tuesday, a new screenshot. Guess the movie, win 2 points. Remember: Only dirty cheaters use IMDb to play the 50 Movies for 50 States guessing game. If you’re a cheater, I will find you out and scold you.

Want to play? Follow Matt on Twitter at @CM_MattDunn.

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