Some films succeed by creating exciting, exotic worlds that filmgoers could never visit. Others introduce audiences to characters they will never forget. Then there are those rare movies that entrance us by the emotional tone they capture and sustain.
This is the rarefied air in which "The Virgin Suicides" makes its considerable impact. This dreamy tone-poem to the longing and frustration of adolescence doesn't unfold as much as materialize, ethereally, on screen, and it hovers in the imagination long after the lights have gone up.
This is not to suggest that Sofia Coppola, who makes her feature directorial debut here, hasn't created some unforgettable characters or, for that matter, failed to orchestrate a gripping story. Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, "The Virgin Suicides" is the story of five sisters who captivate the imaginations of their classmates while attending a suburban high school in the 1970s.
From the outset, it's clear that all may not be right with the Lisbon sisters. One of them, Cecilia (Hanna Hall) has tried to take her own life just as the story opens. And it's clear from the outset that Cecilia and her sisters are no ordinary bevy of makeup-sharing siblings. Both worldly and out-of-this-world, they inhabit a terra incognita known only to teen-age girls, whose apprehension of the world around them is so specific and sharp as to demand its own special language. It's a language the Lisbon girls speak almost telepathically, and they communicate worlds of pain and desire. When a psychiatrist tells Cecilia that she's too young to know how bad life can be, she levels him with an even gaze. "Obviously, doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl."
More things will go wrong in the Lisbon household, where the girls' repressed mother (Kathleen Turner) makes an almost psychotic attempt to protect her daughters from the predations of the outside (read, male) world and their ineffectual father (James Woods) longs for one of them to bring home a guy he can build model airplanes with.
But even as it traces the operatically tragic trajectory of the Lisbon daughters' lives, "The Virgin Suicides" isn't really about them. Told in a voiceover narration by one of the boys who becomes obsessed with the Lisbons, the story is really about male adolescence, its awkward hormonal bursts and the emotional mysteries of first love. When one of the boys finds a Lisbon diary, they pore over it as if it were the Rosetta Stone. "We knew they knew everything about us," the narrator says, "and we couldn't fathom them at all."
Coppola, who happens to be the daughter of another director named Francis, has inherited her father's anthropological instinct for portraying tribal rituals. Here, she captures not only the manicured WASP precincts of suburban Michigan in the 1970s but also the floaty, abstracted experience of being a teen-ager, when emotions were too strong for language and the only way to communicate was to hold a telephone up to a stereo playing a love song.
Such moments would make for nostalgic whimsy in another filmmaker's hands, but Coppola controls the mood so assuredly that "The Virgin Suicides" never loses its sense of elegy. There are humorous flourishes: Woods' rabbity attempts at jocularity with his daughters' suitors, or Josh Hartnett's lanky, cocksure portrayal of Trip Fontaine, a foxy big-man-on-campus who sets out to break the heart of the luminous Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst).
The time and the place are easy targets for ironists. But Coppola sets the bar much higher, capturing the interior lives of characters who remain stubbornly elusive to the end. As a portrait of adolescent sexual awakening, "The Virgin Suicides" ranks with "Splendor in the Grass" and, more recently, "Smooth Talk," both of which respectfully preserved the inscrutability of their protagonists.
Like both those films, "The Virgin Suicides" features a mesmerizing central performance by its female lead. The ambivalence and exhilaration of a young woman just realizing her burgeoning sexual power are captured by Dunst in a series of fine moments. Just watching the expression that plays across her face when Trip calls her a "stone fox" tells you that Dunst has come into her own as an actress.
"The Virgin Suicides" makes its biggest impact most subtly. Coppola has done a masterly job not just of creating a discreet time and place, but of leaving filmgoers with their own private mysteries, their own unanswered questions. This, ultimately, is the movie's finest achievement: It gets under your skin and into your head, and you don't want it to leave.
'The Virgin Suicides'
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, James Woods, Kathleen Turner
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Released by Paramount Classics
Running time 97 minutes
Sun score * * * 1/2