“The Virgin Suicides” is a slightly campy version of a Terrence Malick teen movie. There is real beauty in the way that it makes a tragedy out of both the five sisters who kill themselves and the boys who were in love with them. There are also many points where it becomes clear that Sofia Coppola is a first-time director who lacks total control of her style.
The story is framed from the point of view of one member of a group of boys looking back on his adolescence. He and his friends become obsessed with the Lisbon sisters both because they are beautiful and because they are always at a distance. We see the way that they project layer upon layer of meaning onto people they almost never speak to. The movie is touching in the way that it evokes longing for an ideal, a theme that Coppola has often returned to.
The sisters themselves are the stars for most of the film, but they remain mysterious. So much of them is shown without any concrete sense of their personalities developing. Raised by very strict, deeply religious parents, the girls rebel as much as they can. They listen to rock music and drink at a school dance. Lux, played by Kirsten Dunst, has some hook ups. Basically, they seem normal.
Why, then, do they commit suicide? The easiest answer is that they feel too confined in their home. But this feels unsatisfactory. The point may also be that the movie is about the mystery itself. If so, why does the movie present so many hints? Ultimately, it is hard to believe that Coppola herself knew what the suicides meant. This vagueness makes the entire movie somewhat confused.
This does not stop the movie from having many great merits. Visually, the film shoots the suburbs extremely well. Where most movies emphasize the mundane, repetitive houses found in suburbia, Coppola focuses on the lawns. Besides that, the soundtrack is classic. Its 70’s pop classics match the sentimentality of the characters perfectly. The rock songs serve as reminder that the 70’s were a time when rock was at its most popular, but also its most excessive. Hearing songs like “Crazy On You” and “Come Sail Away,” you can see why the parents of the film think that society is crumbling.
The movie’s acting is generally good, but Kathleen Turner and James Woods must be singled out for talent. As the parents, they are not meant to be very sympathetic, but they find a way to be. Turner conveys real fear about the changing world. Woods gives off the feel of someone who wants nothing more than to quietly go about his life. While the style of the movie can be distant, Turner and Woods are touchingly human.
Tony Schwab is a staff columnist for the Highlighter.