Sofia Coppola’s catatonic performance in her father’s 1990 film The Godfather Part III was universally savaged, and at age nineteen it appeared that her career might be finished – she’s had only a few roles of minor importance since then. But just as a certain Arkansas governor recovered from his soporific speech at the Democratic convention two years earlier by ambitiously aiming a little higher the next time around, so has Sofia Coppola. She’s gone behind the camera to write and direct The Virgin Suicides, a remarkable debut achievement that stands as one of the best portrayals of both an era and adolescence ever filmed.
Coppola has adapted Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel into a moving script, showing a family on the brink in the mid-1970s. The Lisbons of stylish Gross Point, Michigan have five daughters ages 13 through 17, all about to blossom into full womanhood. Cecilia (Hanna Hall), Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook) and Therese (Leslie Hayman) are beautiful and desired. The story is told by a collective "we" – the neighborhood boys who worship the Lisbon sisters, and is narrated by Giovanni Ribisi as a present-day grownup. Mom (Kathleen Turner, remarkably dowdy) is a devout Catholic horrified of the temptations of the flesh. She sets up a strict gauntlet of rules that bars the girls from any kind of social life. Dad (James Woods) teaches high school math and seems more bemused than shocked by the testosterone swarm his daughters seem to attract.
After Cecilia attempts suicide by slashing her wrists, her parents recant and invite some neighborhood boys for a party. Cecilia uses the opportunity to leap to her death from an upstairs window. Her parents respond by pulling the other four girls out of school and sequestering them in their bedrooms. Neighborhood boys soon set up worshipful vigil in homes across the street, straining with binoculars to catch a glimpse of the unattainable and legendary Lisbon girls. High school hunk Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) finally convinces the Lisbons to allow him to take Lux to the prom – their only condition is that he find the other girls escorts for a quadruple date. But what starts out as a charmed evening of escape and freedom eventually leads to disappointment and even more repression.
The 1970s are always an easy target, given that the decade created some of the most hideous clothing, hairstyles, and music known to history. Most renderings of the era focus on all the cosmetic aberrations – look how idiotic people were back then, conveniently ignoring that most of them are now us. But Coppola and director of photography Ed Lachman (The Limey, True Stories) never linger long enough on any velour jacket or Prince Valiant hairstyle to mock it. Instead, they create an ethereal atmosphere of pastels and diffused light that eventually makes us wonder if the Lisbon girls are indeed mythical creatures. Music from ’70s bands like Heart, Electric Light Orchestra and Air Supply is also used to wondrous effect, as Coppola once again chooses not to ridicule, but instead show how the soundtrack of any era, however banal, has such incredible significance when one is only 14.
Both Woods and Turner are outstanding as the Lisbon parents. Turner progresses from concerned mother to jailer and inquisitor as her concern for her daughters’ futures leads her to build ever thicker walls around them. Woods, a flamboyant actor in most past roles, shows remarkable restraint – which makes the progressive pain he portrays even more moving. As Lux, Kirsten Dunst delivers an amazing performance, at once innocent and earthy, intelligent and naive. Josh Hartnett’s Trip is a fully formed bundle of hormones, bluster, and insecurities – a star jock who inwardly knows that he’s a fraud. The rest of the ensemble perfectly captures the veneer of awkward arrogance that teens apply to mask the embryonic personalities within.
The Virgin Suicides will strike a chord with anyone who grew up in the ’70s. It will resonate with anyone who’s ever gone through adolescence. It ranks with the very best films of the year.
– Bob Aulert