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MFA celebrates the films of Laura Dern

Treat Williams and Laura Dern star in “Smooth Talk,” screening at the MFA as part of its film series “Woman Inherits the Earth: The Films of Laura Dern.”
Museum of Fine Arts
Treat Williams and Laura Dern star in “Smooth Talk,” screening at the MFA as part of its film series “Woman Inherits the Earth: The Films of Laura Dern.”

For more than 30 years, Laura Dern’s penchant for slightly off-kilter but basically decent characters has created a rich and textured body of work. “Woman Inherits the Earth: The Films of Laura Dern,” continuing this week at the Museum of Fine Arts, isn’t a complete offering of her prodigious output of films, but it’s an impressive sampling of Dern’s daring performances, starting with her earliest leading role at 18 in Joyce Chopra’s “Smooth Talk” (1985).

Based on a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, “Smooth Talk” casts Dern as Connie, a self-absorbed teen infatuated with the discovery of her own sexual power. When Connie attracts the attention of a predatory older man (Treat Williams), she finds herself caught up in a tense adult situation. “Smooth Talk” screens Dec. 30 at 4 p.m.

Working with another woman director, Martha Coolidge, Dern earned her first Oscar nomination for “Rambling Rose” (1991), another incisive portrait of a young woman trying to navigate her own blossoming sexuality, this time in 1930s Georgia. Dern’s Rose has been sent to work as a servant for the Hillyer family ostensibly because of her “promiscuity.” Dern’s mother, Diane Ladd, plays the Hillyer family matriarch and also received an Oscar nod for supporting actress. It screens Dec. 29 at 5:30 p.m.

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Jumping ahead 25 years, the series presents Kelly Reichardt’s much-acclaimed 2016 feature “Certain Women” on Dec. 29 at 8 p.m. Dern plays a harried, well-meaning small-town lawyer trying to deal with an erratic client in the first of Reichardt’s trio of vignettes (the others star Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone) all set in the desolate open spaces of Montana.

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Reichardt adapted “Certain Women” from three short stories by Montana native Maile Meloy. The film, which has drawn critical praise, is the latest example of Dern’s career-long collaborations with adventurous directors, including Paul Thomas Anderson and David Lynch. In Anderson’s “The Master,” which will screen on 35mm Dec. 28 at 7:30 p.m., Dern has a small but crucial role as Helen Sullivan, a devout follower and benefactor of cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who begins to question Dodd’s teachings and methods.

Dern made four films with Lynch, including “Inland Empire” (2006), which closes the series on Dec. 30 at 7 p.m. Dern gives a powerhouse performance as Nikki Grace, a married actress working on a Hollywood film about a love affair in the American South. Nikki becomes involved with her costar (Justin Theroux) and the two rapidly lose track of the line between reality and cinematic fantasy.

The MFA is screening David Lynch’s personal 35mm print of “Inland Empire.” It will be preceded by “Lynchian lounge music” in Taste Café by the Providence band Volcano Kings starting at 6:15 p.m.

For more information go to www.mfa.org.

Onscreen play

Audiences can feast on more fearless acting with the “National Theater Live” production of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. After a run on Broadway, the production returned to London’s West End stage where it was broadcast live to movie theaters. The Coolidge Corner Theatre hosts an encore presentation on Dec. 29 at 7 p.m. McKellen and Stewart starred in Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot” in 2009, then reunited with director Sean Mathias for Pinter’s 1975 dark comedy. The actors play a pair of aging writers whose night of drinking and telling tales gradually turns into a power game. The broadcast of “No Man’s Land” will be followed by a question and answer session with the cast and the director.

For more information go to www.coolidge.org.

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.