In her promising feature directorial debut, Sofia Coppola tackles the issue of teenage suicide with an assured treatment in “The Virgin Suicides,” effectively employing a seriocomic tone. Set in a Michigan suburb in the early 1970s, this darkly humorous picture benefits from an original narrative structure that views the story from a contempo male perspective. Unlike most American teen pics, its appealing cast consists of actors who are the same age as the young characters they play. Theatrical prospects are good for a timely and accomplished movie that, with the right handling, could attract young as well as more mature viewers, and may generate controversy as well.
Adapting to the screen Jeffrey Eugenides’ well-received 1991 novel, scripter-helmer Coppola (whose father is one of the pic’s producers) is young enough to view the 1970s with fresh insights. Though her direction is uneven, she should be credited for avoiding an easier, more satirical approach (a la “Heathers”) and steering clear of the trivial, pandering nature of so many current American youth pics.
Humor prevails throughout, but it doesn’t deflate the disturbing elements of the tale, which miraculously manages to stay droll, heartfelt and poignant to the end.
Headed by a quirky high school math teacher (James Woods) and his rigid religious wife (Kathleen Turner), the Lisbons appear to be a healthy suburban American family. There are five teenage daughters, the youngest being Cecilia, 13 (Hannah Hall), and the eldest 17-year-old Therese. But any illusion of normalcy is shattered in the first reel, when the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) announces, “Cecilia was the first to go.”
When Dr. Hornicker (Danny DeVito) reproaches Cecilia that she is not old enough to know how bad life is, she says matter-of-factly, “Obviously, you have never been a 13-year-old girl.” After she slits her wrists, Mr. Lisbon rather naively hopes that her act was just a random accident. Cecilia is brought home, and Father Moody (Scott Glenn) recommends more socializing with boys, which encourages the Lisbons to give what turns out to be the first and only party in their house.
Told through the adult recollections of the boys who knew the Lisbon sisters, the film provides a multilayered view of their fascination with the quintet of girls. Quite inventively, yarn switches smoothly from voice-over narration to flashbacks that re-create adolescent rites of passage.
Central reel is devoted to Lux (Kirsten Dunst), who is the only fully developed sister besides Cecilia; the others are mostly in the background. Trip (Josh Hartnett), the school’s hunk, who can get any girl he wants, is smitten with Lux at first sight. In a series of charming scenes, he goes out of his way to impress her father that he is a gentleman with honorable intentions.
After numerous family discussions, the girls get the OK to go to a dance, and that night Trip and Lux consummate their passion. In a devastating scene, lenser Ed Lachman shows with a bravura high-angle long shot how Trip inexplicably leaves the scene and a bewildered Lux finds herself at dawn all alone in the football field.
After this scene and the (eventually successful) suicide of Cecilia, the Lisbon family begins to disintegrate, spiraling downward to a creepy state of isolation; the girls are taken out of school and are quarantined by their zealously protective mother. But the neighborhood boys become even more intrigued, and they continue to spy on the girls, particularly Lux, as she loses her self-worth and throws herself indiscriminately into sexual abandon on the roof.
Finally, the boys decide to take action and make contact with the secluded girls. In a series of seriocomic scenes, the boys and girls exchange messages by playing popular songs on the phone. Then, late one night, encouraged by Lux, the boys drum up the courage to sneak into the house. The dark resolution is not only shocking but deeply disturbing, particularly because Mrs. Lisbon continues to insist that “there was always plenty of love in our house.”
Presented as a puzzle, which the boys — and viewers — attempt to piece together, “The Virgin Suicides” has the good sense to avoid easy psycho-social explanations. It’s significant, too, that the last word belongs to the men, who continue to mourn the girls they loved but never really understood.
Overall, Coppola acquits herself better as helmer than scripter: The narration suffers from being too literal and too literary. Though her direction is not as sharply focused as it should be, for a first effort, pic reps an honorable achievement, particularly in the credible, often touching performances of the entire youthful cast. Standouts are Dunst, Hall, Hartnett, Jonathan Tucker and Anthony DeSimone.
In restrained, understated roles, Woods and Turner are excellent as the bourgeois parents.
Production values are impressive, especially Lachman’s precise rendering of mundane suburbia, Jasna Stefanovic’s tacky design of the Lisbon house’s interiors, and Nancy Steiner’s tawdry costumes, all vividly capturing “ordinary” American life in the 1970s.