Sofia Coppola went to CalArts with me for a year. One day in film history class, she sat behind me, annoying me throughout The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with her incessant popcorn munching. A friend later suggested that I should have turned around and shouted "You sucked in Godfather III!"
Regardless of her past, can she cut it as a filmmaker today? My hesitant answer is "yes" - which isn't to say that The Virgin Suicides is a flawless film.
Based on the 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, the story unfolds in suburban Michigan, 1975, as we examine the Lisbon family: dorky math teacher father (a hilarious James Woods), strict mother (Kathleen Turner), and five beautiful teenage daughters. Not far into the film, the youngest daughter ends her life; I won't give away much about her sisters' fates other than reminding the reader of the plural in the film's title, which initially lends the otherwise sweet, sun-kissed nostalgia an air of sadness.
In the meantime, the film revels in the general awkwardness of being in high school, as the curious neighbor boys spy on the Lisbon girls, focusing on the horniest sister, 14-year-old Lux (Kirsten Dunst), and her burgeoning romance with the cutest boy in school, Trip (Josh Hartnett). The cast is perfect, and Coppola & crew expertly capture the feeling of the mid-'70s: from Chinese Checkers to peach Schnapps, it's all there, without any added cheesiness.
Unfortunately, Coppola loses the mood about two-thirds through the film. This is intentional; the film is subtly structured into two parts, bisected by the central scene of the homecoming dance: the first is the feeling of excitement as the repressed but lively sisters are finally allowed the freedom to escape their house and socialize with boys; the second is the lethargic despair that comes with that magic evening's sour aftermath.
In this second half, we move away from anything recognizable from American teenage life and into some sort of aimless psychodrama. The heretofore underplayed neighborhood boys start taking center stage, Trip leaves the story, Lux goes a bit nuts, and the other sisters' lives become shrouded in mystery even as they fail to emerge as actual characters.
I never thought I'd say this, because it sounds totally sexist, but The Virgin Suicides might have been more potent at this stage if it were directed by a man. It's a voyeuristic fable, after all, seen through the eyes of confused teenage boys as they unsuccessfully try to understand the foreign ways of girls. The hopelessness of this task is the story's central theme. But with her biologically female point of view, Sofia Coppola presumably never felt as mesmerized by the secrets of womanhood, and so when she aims for mystery, she only achieves vagueness, and the energy is lost by the time we're supposed to be moved by what happens. I get the feeling that Coppola, famously obsessed with '70s fashion, chose to adapt this material mainly for its time period and not for anything it has to say.