Virgin Suicides, The (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Virgin Suicides is Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, and its effectiveness illustrates that she's better behind the camera than she is in front of it. (Most movie-goers will remember her ill-fated attempt to portray Michael Corleone's daughter in The Godfather III.) Tragic, haunting, and sometimes darkly comedic, this movie leaves a strong impression in its telling of a story about the destruction of innocence. The film is based on the book by Jeffrey Eugenides, which happens to be Coppola's favorite novel. As a result, she felt that, in bringing the adaptation to the screen, she had a strong responsibility to be faithful to the source material.

The time frame is the mid-'70s and the setting is an upper class suburban community in Michigan. The film tells the sad story of the five Lisbon sisters - Cecilia (age 13, played by Hanna Hall), Lux (age 14, played by Kirsten Dunst), Bonnie (age 15, played by Chelsea Swain), Mary (age 16, played by A.J. Cook), and Therese (age 17, played by Leslie Hayman) - all of whom come to a bad end before finishing high school (this much is revealed during the introductory voiceover, which is provided by Giovanni Ribisi). Unhappy, neglected Cecilia is the first to give up on life - after surviving one suicide attempt, she is successful on the second try. In the wake of that event, the atmosphere surrounding the surviving sisters becomes grim, and their parents' overprotectiveness threatens to suffocate them. For most children, mothers and fathers set boundaries; for the Lisbons, it's iron bars.

The Virgin Suicides is filmed as a memory looking back through 25 years, and the point-of-view is that of a boy who was in love with one (or perhaps all) of the girls. As a result, the events recounted here offer a filtered perspective of the sisters and the complexities of their lives. Presenting things in this manner, The Virgin Suicides manages to be both poignant and touchingly nostalgic. Also, Coppola's style is such that she avoids turning the film into a sudsy melodrama that glamorizes self-destruction.

One of The Virgin Suicides' strengths is its ability to effectively capture the nuances of teenage life during the '70s. Coppola gets all of the little things right: the awkwardness of a chaperoned boy/girl party, the thrill of first love, and the nervousness of the pre-dance ritual (in this case, the homecoming dance, not the prom). The film also boasts a solid soundtrack featuring a few songs that haven't been endlessly recycled in other, recent, set-in-the-'70s features. In one key scene, music provides a link between the Lisbon girls and the outside world - it becomes their only viable means of communication and free expression.

Most of the cast is comprised of fresh faces, all of whom do solid jobs. The more recognizable names include Kirsten Dunst as Lux (the girl with the most visible role), James Woods (as the girls' father), and Kathleen Turner (as their mother). Josh Hartnett (last seen as the guy who loses the girl in Here On Earth), who is slowly building a reputation in Hollywood, plays heartthrob Trip Fontaine, whose poor treatment of Lux sets off a chain of events that leads to one of the movie's tragedies. The Virgin Suicides also includes excerpts from a modern-day interview with a forty-something Trip (played by Michael Pare), who clearly has regrets about his treatment of Lux.

By using occasional bursts of humor and setting up the film as a collage of reminiscences, Coppola establishes a mood that is wistful and sad, but not funereal. There are a few instances when the film gets a little heavy handed, but, for the most part, the tone is well modulated. Although Coppola almost certainly gained more than a little help from her famous father in getting the production off the ground, the talent evident in her debut argues that this is not a case of unwarranted nepotism. The apple has not fallen far from the tree.

Virgin Suicides, The (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2000-04-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1