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The Virgin Suicides   B+

Paramount Classics

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola (based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides)
Cast: James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Harnett, Hanna R. Hall, Chelse Swain, A.J. Cook, Leslie Hayman, Danny DeVito, Scott Glenn, Jonathan Tucker, Anthony DeSimone, Michelle Duquet.

Review by Rob Vaux

"Somebody's got Daddy's checkbook."

The comment arose from the back of the theater during an early trailer for The Virgin Suicides. As unkind as it was, it highlighted a difficult problem for Sophia Coppola's first feature. How does one divorce her -- wife of Spike Jonze and daughter to the other Coppola -- from those surrounding her? More importantly, how can one judge her work without weighing all the celebrity baggage that her name engenders? Can we legitimately compare this film to her father's canon? Do we divorce ourselves entirely and look at it in a vacuum? Will memories of her infamous turn in Godfather III affect the way we judge her directing debut? Luckily, Coppola herself knows how to best respond to the issue: with a subtle, powerful, deeply haunting film that lingers in the mind long after the final credits roll.

The virgins of the title are the five Lisbon sisters -- Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therse -- doomed teenage daughters of a repressed Michigan family in the mid-1970s. Fiercely cloistered by their draconian mother (Kathleen Turner), the girls are worshipped from afar by the neighborhood boys who have imposed all number of ideals on their enigmatic smiles. It's school stud Trip Fontaine (Josh Harnett) who finally breaks through the Lisbon's wall. Smitten by the promiscuous Lux (Kirsten Dunst), he wheedles the parents into letting him take her to the homecoming dance. After initial inhibitions, the Lisbons agree, provided Trip provides dates for the other sisters, who can then accompany Lux as chaperones. The ramifications of the agreement have dire consequences on the Lisbons...and still haunt the boys a quarter-century later.

While the premise seems shopworn (suburban angst is hardly new material), Coppola tackles it with grace and finesse. The cinematography invokes a gorgeous, dreamy landscape of sun-dappled fields and contended neighborhoods. Within that hazy pleasantness, the Lisbons stand out as anomalies: straight-laced, dull and devoid of any emotions. The soul-crushing banality of the Lisbon home finds personification in Turner, who represses her natural sensuality behind a mask of religious denial. As we watch her position herself between Lux and Trip on the couch or wordlessly drag her girls away from the open front door, we sense her battling more than just a mother's worries. Dunst's Lolita-esque Lux expertly counters her mother's prudishness, spearheading the girls' unspoken rebellion against their parents. Supported by a stellar cast (including James Woods as the emasculated Mr. Lisbon), the two actresses almost perfectly embody the film's quiet strength.

And "quiet" is the operative word here. There's no screaming in The Virgin Suicides, no raging histrionics or self-righteous outbursts. Coppola conveys the Lisbons' struggle through pointed understatement, allowing imagery and unspoken implications to convey emotions for her. The sisters hide their feelings behind enticing winks and mysterious smiles, leaving a blank slate to project all manner of feelings upon. Their parents see them as objects to be protected; the boys see them as idealized fantasies. But their motivations -- and the pain that drives their final, devastating rebellion -- are as elusive as the sunlight around their house. Coppola uses those hidden smiles as a springboard for the entire film, matching the sisters' emotional masks with the world in which they live. We don't get any pat explanations or simpleton finger-pointing, but rather a powerful meditation on lost innocence that defies easy answers. Such deliberate ambiguity is stunning in an era dominated by connect-the-dots Hollywood demagoguery.

There are missteps, of course. Some of the shots seem random and gimmicky, as if Coppola is trying out all of the different toys to see which ones she likes the best. The "corruption in suburbia" theme is a tad ham-handed as well and grates against the poetic silence of the rest of the film. But surrounded by such a rich tapestry, they feel more like a rookie learning the ropes than an untalented director out of her league. When the film finally hits you, a little creative wandering seems more than forgivable.

The Virgin Suicides isn't an easy movie to watch: as you may suspect, it's a bit of a downer. But its emotional evocation and skillful motifs create a power that few movies even aspire to, let alone achieve. All the snickering about Francis's little girl can't hide the genuine talent at the heart of this film, talent that has only begun to find a voice. For a first step, The Virgin Suicides is a triumph. You don't know any more about the Lisbon girls coming out than you did going in, but you desperately want to...and the resonance they leave is impossible to forget.

Review published 04.28.2000.

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