The Goddaughters

Sofia Coppola mixes nostalgia, suburbia, and teen lust into a volatile blend in The Virgin Suicides.

Everybody's a princess at one point or another. Rich girls work it from birth to final crackup. Bourgeois girls play the precious-'n'-misunderstood game through adolescence, shifting it into ruthless ambition shortly thereafter. Poor girls can blow an entire lifetime just screwing up their hair and pretending they're Tolkein's Galadriel. As for boys (whose princely maladies have been covered sublimely in the cinema this season), the princess bug can strike at any age, provoking anything from satin thongs to Palm Springs residency to music-industry mogulhood. Ultimately, no one is immune. Common symptoms also include painfully acute emotional sensitivity, a passion for unicorns, and paralyzing shock at the discovery that pugnacity -- not poetry -- rules our collective reality. Trapped in a realm of overwhelming patriarchal oppression -- extending from various "holy lands" to industrial centers to suburban high schools -- what's a dreamy feminine spirit to do?

Sofia Coppola grapples with this rumination in The Virgin Suicides, her breezy adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides's wry novel (which is not, despite what you may have heard, about Richard Branson's company going bust). That this is Coppola's debut feature seems incidental; the movie is as sumptuous as her father's support could make it, and her vision and timing already match the skills of many veterans. (Perhaps this is through osmosis: Her family tree includes Talia Shire, Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman; she's also married to that guy who calls himself Spike Jonze.) There's a massive machine behind Coppola, but she obviously knows how to get it into gear. She also understands the crisp, oblique horror and wistfulness of Eugenides's narrative, plunking down five enchanting princesses into an environment that is anything but magical.

It's the perspective that gives this material its weird edge. The Virgin Suicides is quite unlike Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, despite sharing its basic paradigm: dewy, adolescent whimsy butting heads with stern, oppressive mores, resulting in tragic release. Jackson's sweet-gone-sour film, based on a bloody incident involving two young soulmates in 1950s New Zealand, ensnared us in the magnificent visions of its female protagonists -- pioneers, you might darkly prophesy -- who directed their rage outward rather than imploding. In Coppola's take (and Eugenides's book), set twenty-odd years later in the tragic kingdom of suburban Michigan, the dreams and fantasies of the five Lisbon sisters are kept largely under wraps -- ironic, given the director's comment that her movie is about "the line between reality and fantasy, which is a very cinematic notion to me." (Perhaps she assumes we've all heard Little Earthquakes enough times to take certain concepts for granted.) What we do see is hinted at in the random poetry of a purloined diary, or in stoner rock albums burned for spiritual salvation -- hardly deeply revelatory stuff. To amplify the intrigue, we spend the movie outside with a gaggle of smitten boys, peering in on the shimmering, unattainable girls.

The girls next door (from left): Chelse Swain, Kirsten Dunst, Leslie Hayman and A.J. Cook are four of the five Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides.
The girls next door (from left): Chelse Swain, Kirsten Dunst, Leslie Hayman and A.J. Cook are four of the five Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides.

"Nobody could understand how Mrs. Lisbon and Mr. Lisbon, our math teacher, produced such beautiful creatures," comments Giovanni Ribisi, the dryly melancholic narrator who's the adult incarnation of one of the boys, Tim Weiner (youthful Jonathan Tucker). It is quite a mystery, as the preternaturally straight man (James Woods) and impotence-inducingly frumpy wife (Kathleen Turner) have begotten a singular quincunx of ethereal, intellectual, lyrical waifs, including Cecilia (Hannah Hall), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook), Therese (Leslie Hayman) and Lux (Kirsten Dunst). Apart from their innate Catholicism and all that that implies (crucifixes linger throughout the house), you cannot even imagine how such conceptions could have been possible between these two cold fishes. Like any parents of adolescent girls, however, the old squares quickly find they've got more on their hands than they can handle.

The movie launches into its purpose with Cecilia, the youngest, in the bathtub, her little wrists slashed, clutching an image of the Madonna. Of course, as soon as the girl is revived, a heavy blanket of denial descends over the incident, and the perilously sensitive child is sent to psychologist Dr. Horniker (Danny DeVito, looking more '70s than he did in the '70s). Horniker uses Rorschach blots on Cecilia ("a banana, a swamp, an Afro," she intones, bored) and applies a pretty Band-Aid for her parents' benefit ("Cecilia didn't mean to kill herself"). Once we infiltrate the Lisbon home -- a modestly tacky period set illuminated by the girls' rooms, which are bursting with Smurfette-style kitsch, more Catholic detritus and a complete set of Nancy Drew books -- we start to feel the unease ourselves. Local lad and lucky dinner guest Peter Sissen (Chris Hale) discovers it as we do: Something is off here.

The astute assessment continues as the Lisbons, attempting to brighten everyone's spirits, host a spine-twistingly awkward party in their wood-paneled basement rec room. (Anyone over 25 is likely to view this scene and wonder nervously if any clothes like these [courtesy of costume designer Nancy Steiner] still loiter in the back of their closet -- except for Beck fans, of course, who are wearing them right now.) The kids struggle to enjoy themselves with some of the worst ice-breakers on record ("Um, how did your SATs go?"), then have a little fun at the expense of retarded Joe (Paul Sybersma) -- until tragedy strikes again, and the angel of death looms over these maidens. The Lisbon house is consumed by a thick despair, which withstands even the noble, pompous efforts of Father Moody (Scott Glenn, sly as hell) to dissolve it.

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