Bite Size: Bonnie’s Kids (1972)

Charley (seasoned on screen heavy Leo Gordon) is a textbook bastard. Big, blunt, gruff, and perpetually drunk, even his poker “buddies” only stop by to drink his booze and con him out of his spare cash at cards. Yet, somehow he’s been entrusted with the care of two stepdaughters, twentysomething diner waitress Ellie (Tiffany Bolling, The Candy Snatchers) and 15 year old wild child Myra (future soap star Robin Mattson, in her first film role).

It’s an unsustainable situation, and after another disastrous night at the poker table, Charley decides to attempt to force himself on Myra, to teach her a lesson about her teasing ways. The terrified teen is saved by her big sister coming home early from work. There’s the implication that this abuse has been going on a long time, and seeing Charley pawing at her baby sister finally pushes Ellie to pick up a shotgun and pump both barrels into his chest. The girls dump his body, fleeing to Los Angeles and their Uncle Ben, who got rich via a thriving modeling agency.

In an era and subgenre known for every conceivable permutation of attention grabbing effort, Bonnie’s Kids‘ cold open is a pretty masterful bid to get (and keep) the required asses into the seats. The first scene flirts with hicksploitation tropes, breathlessly adding a rape revenge angle, ample sleaze, nudity, and a reasonably bloody murder before the credits have even rolled.

This buffet style approach to exploitation mainstays takes up the bulk of the film’s first half, as more narrative threads are introduced to catch any subsets of viewers not entirely sold by the opener. Uncle Ben is a mobster, and his modeling agency is for placement of cheesecake models in girlie magazines. Ben has no qualms both offering Ellie a job, and approving the proofs of the topless photos himself. Meanwhile, Ben’s wife Laura (Lenore Stevens) is a touch too solicitous, with obvious designs on young Myra. For those keeping score at home, that adds organized crime, a double dose of lechery, and a whiff of lesbianism to the Bingo card.

Only after the halfway point does Bonnie’s Kids take its final form as a Elmore Leonard style thriller. Ben sends Ellie to retrieve a package from utterly dim private eye Larry (Steve Sandor), hired specifically to be the fall guy for Ben’s criminal pals. Instead, Ellie decides to seduce him. When the couple discovers the package is a briefcase chock full of cash, they decide to make a break for it, hopefully picking Myra up along the way. Giving chase are are a pair of bickering assassins (Alex Rocco and Timothy Brown) with a taste for greasy spoons and the pretty waitresses work in them.

Writer/director Arthur Marks is probably best known today for 70’s Blaxploitation efforts (Friday Foster, Detroit 9000, J.D.’s Revenge), but the bulk of his 60s work was on television. He did some journeyman direction work on multiple popular programs of the period, most notably a 76 episode stint on Perry Mason. Marks’ experience as a working director gives an unshowy professionalism to the visuals. He also stacked his cast with seasoned character actors, pulling fine performances out of a solid group of familiar faces.

Tiffany Bolling was a beautiful blonde from a show business family, but she was more of a deeply enthusiastic actress than a particularly nuanced one. She’s at her career best here, perhaps due to Arthur Marks having the wisdom to encourage restraint. Ms. Bolling looks lovely as ever, but her spirited performance is deftly kept from crashing into too toothy of a territory. Young Robin Mattson’s Myra is a bit less assured, but manages to show glimmers of the delightfully bitchy screen presence that would later make her one of daytime television’s favorite villains.

Mattson’s lying Lolita makes a good compliment to Bolling’s hard-boiled Barbie, and it is a shame they share only a few scenes together before the plot sends them careening in opposite directions. It’s a decidedly odd narrative choice, and reveals what is likely Bonnie’s Kids‘ biggest flaw. The film is overstuffed with plot elements, that even an unusually long 105 minute runtime fails to fully resolve.

The intercutting between each lead actress’s plot threads makes for a bogged down second act, where the pace slows down and waits for all of this free floating amorality to catch up to our protagonists. A much tighter and more entertaining final third focuses on the lovers on the run, and when the two halves of the story finally meet, it’s a grim whimper rather than a whip crack.

While the pacing flaws keep Bonnie’s Kids more in the realm of solidly entertaining than a trash cinema all timer, where it does achieve greatness is as a representative example. If you wanted to show someone unfamiliar with this era of cinema one film as an introduction to both the fabulousness and flaws of 70s drive in fare, you couldn’t do much better than this. While it isn’t as transgressive or excessive as other options, it’s a solid median entry for those wishing to dip their toes into the outsider cinema pool rushing straight for the deep end.

Incongruous funk on the soundtrack, blood, babes, questionable taste, and a downbeat splash of nihilism are all present and accounted for. To put the icing on the exploitation layer cake, the title is an obvious attempt to align our titular terrible twosome with the box office cache of 1967 mainstream crime caper Bonnie and Clyde.

Despite the character name being in the marquee, she has only a nominal relationship to anything the audience is about to see —Bonnie is the siblings’ deceased mother, never appearing on screen— and is clearly only included to confuse buyers into a few extra ticket sales. Given his former video store clerk status, it isn’t surprising that perpetual grindhouse revivalist Quentin Tarentino named a segment in his own opus of dangerous babes and bickering hitmen “The Bonnie Problem” in tribute.

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