Sofia Coppola made her directorial debut in 1999 with The Virgin Suicides, which was based on the novel of the same name by Jeffrey Eugenides. Suicides follows a group of young males in the 1970s that become transfixed by a group of sheltered sisters. After one of the girls attempts suicide, the boys start to observe the relationships between the girls and their austere parents. The story then follows how the boys become connected with the girls themselves, and how the young females try to live more adventurous and youthful lives.
Giovanni Ribisi narrates Coppola’s film, guiding the points of view of the males. While some exploration is done into the various girls’ lives, the main focus of the film is on the sister named Lux, played by Kirsten Dunst. Lux rebels the most against the held-down lifestyles, and embraces her youth by taking a hold of her desires of sex, music, etc. In her outreach, Lux even becomes involved with a boy named Trip (played by Josh Hartnett), the rebellious “cool” kid of the town who can get any woman he wishes. Lux and the other sisters’ actions eventually lead to a blowout between them and their parents, played by James Woods and Kathleen Turner.
Coppola handles the film with dedicated directorial strength, weaving the multiple aspects of the sisters’ lives together with interesting camera movements and other visual flairs that grip the audience. Though this screen presentation is impressive, Coppola’s ambitious but muddled-feeling script (some of the source material could be at fault, too) cripples the film’s overall impact. The problem I had with the screenplay is that it insists on telling the story from the point of view of the males, yet never delves into the male characters themselves–the only fully fleshed-out male character seems to be Trip, yet even his character manages to exit the screen towards the latter half of the movie.
While certain studies of the girls by the boys are poignant, the story never reaches the emotional heights it aims for because of the lack of personal interest that the audience has for the male storytellers. Also, the script’s themes of suicide, obsession, lust, etc. in the lives of teenagers make for important topics, but also give the movie a downbeat feeling throughout. This feeling is sometimes punctuated, however, by great moments of joy, aided immensely by the film’s soundtrack (including fantastic rock songs by Heart and Styx). So, Suicides has heavy moments of insight and a few sparks of happiness, but mostly leaves feelings of depression or dissatisfaction.
The cast of Suicides certainly cannot be faulted. Dunst and Hartnett give believable and heartfelt performances as the two main teens on focus. Woods and Turner help anchor the movie, as well, turning in superb performances as the parents—though the parents’ views and actions often seem cliché. However, Ribisi’s narration stood out above all for me. Though I did say the males’ points of view feel somewhat weak and impersonal, Ribisi gives the film more of a connection with the audience with his touching narration.
Suicides is certainly not Coppola’s best work, but it is an interesting an occasionally arresting film. Its themes definitely make it a curiosity item, as not many films give this much of a look into what makes teenagers want to commit suicide. In the end, the film is best left for followers of Coppola, though it is definitely not a bad movie—but it is far from great, too.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.