Considering the storyline -- five teenage sisters growing up in a repressive home, headed for funerals rather than graduations -- the lightness of touch is surprising. But to juxtapose suicide with a buoyant innocence might be uniquely appropriate; if the film has a message, it seems to be that a mythologized purity of youth can't survive into adulthood. Literally or metaphorically, death is the illogical and inevitable outcome.
The first signs of the disjunction between fantasy and reality come when Cecilia Lisbon (Hanna Hall) -- the youngest of five gorgeous sisters wildly idealized by a group of doe-eyed, teenaged soft boys -- kills herself, and the surviving girls retreat into the family cloister, thus making themselves both less unattainable and more mythic.
Josh Hartnett, playing school stud Trip Fontaine, is just right as a suburban Michigan teen heartthrob. (Unfortunately, I know this firsthand; I was a teenager in suburban Michigan.) Trip Fontaine, with his androgynously long hair, long eyelashes, stoned swagger, and pukka shell necklace, is what the best of the Michigan boys looked like. Hartnett holds his own as he stumbles and dances a stoned dance in an otherwise empty hallway, and it's possible to believe that he could be, in the right town and the right moment, every girl's eventually outdated fantasy. The rest of the boys in town appear perpetually younger than any girls, both physically and emotionally. The film's narrator tells us that the girls are all "women in disguise," though the Lisbon sisters themselves seem to instead hover uncomfortably between childhood and permission to activate their adult selves.
The naiveté culminates in a homecoming dance dizzy with happiness -- the far opposite of Carrie, a film of troubled adolescence that cuts a lot closer to the actual '70s. A series of quick, jumbled cuts of actors and balloons bumping too close to the camera captures the chaos of a crowd, and the first night ever for the Lisbon sisters out on a group date, drinking illicit alcohol under the bleachers. The sweet colors of suburbia fade only when Lux (Kirsten Dunst), the most daring of the sisters, wakes up alone on the football field. The camera pulls back to turn a high-school girl in a homemade homecoming dress into the lonely, fragile beauty of N.C. Wyeth's painting, Christina's World. She's half-curled and gazing back, not at a farmstead in this case, but toward a high school.
As a novel, Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides seems an unlikely candidate for a movie. It's ruminative and reflective with a slight plot, told through an anonymous narrator speaking on behalf of a collective mass of sensitive boys. However, for the most part, first-time director Sofia Coppola's movie is a direct translation of details established by Eugenides in the novel, complete with a voiceover when necessary.
Coppola has sifted the material, dropping weight and details. Throughout the book, for instance, the beloved elms of the neighborhood are dying. Although this gains mention in the movie, as an element, it loses significance. There's a random scene in which the four remaining daughters gather around their lone elm tree when the city comes to cut it down; in the novel, this moment contributes to the awareness that the planning of suburbs is often dangerously shortsighted, exemplified by killing the trees in the name of saving the trees (to say nothing of the dead dream girl). In the movie, however, the girls give up quickly on the lone elm, run on light feet and in drifting nightgowns back into the house, and the event registers only as incidental, fruitless, irrelevant.
The movie's final scenes are handled in an equally flimsy way, squandering the opportunity for the powerful emotional impact of the novel. So as the credits rolled, rather than reflecting heavily on the narrative, I left the theater with a quietly revived nostalgia for well-mowed lawns, summer heat, and that clean scent of Breck.