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The Virgin Suicides
Directed by Sofia Coppola 
Starring James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Hanna R. Hall, Chelse Swain, A.J. Cook, Leslie Hayman, Danny DeVito, Scott Glenn, Jonathan Tucker (I), Anthony DeSimone, Giovanni Ribisi, Michelle Duquet

Most coming-of-age narratives are nostalgia-influenced tales told through the prism of adult experience. In that respect, The Virgin Suicides is no different. But its story of four high-school boys and the five sisters they worship is so honest about its nostalgia and yet so enigmatic in its conclusions that it creates a captivating fog difficult to disperse.

The plot takes place in Grosse Point, an upscale suburb of Detroit, in the mid-'70s. The five Lisbon sisters and their parents have had their perfect lives upset by the attempted suicide of the youngest family member, Cecilia. Like many suburban families in the movies, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon try to go on with their lives as if nothing happened. The one concession they make is taking the psychologist's advice (Danny DeVito in a small cameo) to give the daughters a little more freedom.

This leads to the mom (Kathleen Turner, Body Heat) throwing a party for the girls and their friends--"the first and only party of their short lives," as the voice-over narration tells us. Sofia Coppola, the famous daughter of the even more famous director, shoots this scene as if she's been directing movies for twenty years. The party's awkward introductions, the forced laughter, the well-meaning intrusions of the parents, and the flirtatious tension are all communicated with perfect camera work and editing. When Cecilia excuses herself, the audience knows something bad is on the way. Sure enough, her second suicide attempt is more successful.

Life doesn't end yet, though, for the remaining Lisbon sisters. Returning to school in the fall, they pick up with their classes and coterie of admirers. The only guy to have any success is Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett, The Faculty), a suave, worldly senior who pursues the youngest remaining sister, Lux (Kirsten Dunst, Drop Dead Gorgeous). Whether Lux is actually supposed to be the most vivacious of the four or if it's just Dunst's inherent magnetism coming to the fore is never clear. But her combination of coyness, vulnerability, flirtatiousness and daring is fabulous to behold. When Trip slides up to her during a nature film screening, Dunst's facial expressions and body language perfectly capture a 14-year-old girl's burgeoning sexuality as well as her uncertainty about it.

The rest of the film documents the four sisters and the boys who unsuccessfully try to break through the cloud surrounding them. A homecoming dance (with a particularly effective use of Styx's "Come Sail Away") and its unfortunate aftermath permanently send the girls to their rooms. But the boys and girls--through an unusual combination of Morse code, carefully concealed postcards, and music played over the phone--are still able to continue their circling dance.

This theme of affected communication and the mysteries it engenders is central to the film. The boys collect tokens of the girls' lives--a diary, rosary beads, lipstick--and use them to decode what the girls are/were like. As the narrator, an adult version of one of the boys, tries to understand what happened--why Cecilia and then the four other sisters all committed suicide--but can offer no answers and little solace. An interview with the adult Trip (pointedly filmed while he's in rehab) only reflects his own bafflement. And the neighbors cannot explain the events, only use them as signposts for the societal breakdown that followed.

Coppola's writing and direction is far from fuzzy. One shot of the girls after Cecilia's suicide is nothing but a postmodern pastiche of a Renoir portrait. The aforementioned party scene finds other relatives in a shot of the family watching television while a male suitor sits uncomfortably in the middle, as well as a late-night tryst on the football field. And the script's pairing of the girls' misfortunes with the destruction of the neighborhood's elm trees is useful and provocative. The only misstep is a recurring image of Cecilia that has little to do with the narrative.

The acting is uniformly strong. James Woods as the uncertain father gives is usual fine performance, Kathleen Turner nicely handles the role of an over-protective mother, and the quartet of young men portray the difficulty and awkwardness of being sensitive teenagers. Only the title characters (with the exception of Dunst) do little to distinguish themselves, but that's mostly due to their interchangeability--being blonde and luminous seems their only requirement. Special kudos to Giovanni Ribisi (Boiler Room) as the narrator; his thoughtful delivery is never cloying or over-dramatic.

Different Catholic organizations have spoken out against the movie for its perceived bias (the mother is strongly devout and uses that as her reason for cloistering her brood). That seems misguided, though. There is no villain in this film, only a mother who can't understand her daughters, a society that doesn't know how to raise its children, and teenagers struggling to find out who they are and sometimes never succeeding. 

J. Robert Parks

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