“Cecilia was the first to go.”
So says the narrator in “The Virgin Suicides,” the atmospheric directorial debut by Sofia Coppola (daughter of Francis Ford Coppola).
Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall) is the 13-year-old daughter of the Lisbons (James Woods and Kathleen Turner, both perfect in their roles), a middle-class family living, the movie tells us, “25 years ago” in suburban Michigan. She is the first of the five Lisbon girls to attempt suicide, and though she is at first unsuccessful and the family tries to carry on with normal life, she eventually finishes the job.
The impact of her suicide is devastating. Her parents were over-protective to begin with; this just makes things worse. Her sisters — Therese (Leslie Hayman), 17; Mary (A.J. Cook), 16; Bonnie (Chelse Swain), 15; and Lux (Kirsten Dunst), 14 — continue to muddle through, not allowed to date boys or otherwise enjoy their teen years, though these rules were in effect already (no doubt contributing to Cecilia’s depression in the first place).
After a time, school hunk Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) asks Lux to the prom. Demure and nerdy Mr. Lisbon, a teacher at the high school, convinces his quietly dominating wife to let Lux go on the condition that her sisters all go, too. Trip rounds up a few friends, and the four couples go to the prom.
This middle section seems like a rather charming slice-of-life film about the mid-’70s. Just as in real life, there is humor, despite the recent tragedy in the family. Scenes with some of the neighborhood boys (who love the Lisbon girls) are also enjoyable.
Then things get darker. When Lux, experiencing freedom for the first time ever, takes things too far with Trip and stays out past curfew, the restrictions come down even tighter. The Lisbons pull their daughters out of school and forbid them even to leave the house. The neighborhood boys communicate with them as best they can, and eventually try to help them escape. What happens is dreadful; note the plural in the film’s title, as well as that narrator’s ominous first line, and know that Cecilia is not destined to be the only one.
“The Virgin Suicides” clearly owes a lot to films like “The Ice Storm” (which it most closely resembles in setting, mood and attitude) and “American Beauty”; there’s even some of “Ordinary People” thrown in there. Coppola succeeds at conveying a certain tone that is gloomy without being overly depressing; the film is, at times, almost fable-like.
There are mistakes, too, though. The narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) is clearly one of the neighborhood boys, but it’s never made clear which one — an irritating little detail, since we often hear him telling the story while we see the boys, and it would be nice to know which one of them is the one talking.
More important, though, is that a clear theme is never really established. The film is stylish and unarguably thought-provoking, but what does it boil down to? That over-protective parents sometimes do more harm than good? There must be more to it than that. One doesn’t expect Coppola to spell everything out for us, but a few more hints would be nice, especially with four sisters to keep track of, none of whose heads we ever really get inside.
B+ (; )