For the past three and a half weeks, I’ve been taking a chronological look at some of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable teen and high school films ever made. We started with two films from 1946, I Accuse My Parents and Delinquent Daughters. Therefore, it seems somewhat appropriate that we close out both the 90s and the 20th Century by taking a look at a film about both delinquent daughters and accusatory parents. That film is Sofia Coppola’s 1999 directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides.
Much like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola seems to divide viewers and, in many ways, for the exact same reasons. You either get her films about upper class ennui or you don’t. Everyone seems to love Lost in Translation but viewers and critics seem to be far more polarized when it comes to rest of her films. It seems the people either love them or hate them. Well, you can count me among those who love her films. (Yes, even Somewhere.) To me, Sofia Coppola is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today and the dismissive reaction that many (mostly male) critics have towards her films has little do with her talent and much more to do with her gender and her last name.
In The Virgin Suicides, Coppola tells the story of the five Lisbon sisters. They live in an upper middle class suburbs in the 1970s. Their parents — math teacher Ronald (James Woods) and his wife (Kathleen Turner) — are devoutly Catholic and very protective. The Lisbon sisters are rarely allowed to leave the house and, as a result, the neighborhood boys are obsessed with them. (Though the film centers on four unnamed boys, there’s only one narrator, voiced by Giovanni Ribisi, who continually refers to himself as being “we,” as if all four boys are telling the story in the same voice.) When the youngest Lisbon daughter commits suicide, Ronald and his wife become even more protective.
At the start of the school year, the oldest daughter, Lux (Kirsten Dunst), meets and starts to secretly date the wonderfully named Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). Lux is even allowed to attend the homecoming dance with Trip but, after she breaks curfew, Mrs. Lisbon reacts by pulling Lux and her sisters out of school and basically making them prisoners in their own home.
(In one of the film’s best moments, we flash forward to see present day Trip talking about his date with Lux. Needless to say, Trip did not age well.)
With the Lisbon sisters even more isolated, the neighborhood boys become even more obsessed with them. One day, the boys get a note from the girls, asking for their help in escaping. The boys go to meet the girls, leading the film to its haunting conclusion…
Full of themes of sin, sexuality, repression guilt, redemption, and martyrdom, The Virgin Suicides is one of those films that you don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate but it probably helps. James Woods, Josh Hartnett, and Kirsten Dunst all give good performances while Sofia Coppola fills the movie with dream-like and sensual images, all designed to challenge the viewer’s perception of whether or not we’re watching reality or just the idealized memories of someone still struggling to comprehend a mystery from the past.
The Virgin Suicides is the perfect movie to end with the 90s on.