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The Virgin Suicides

Rated [R], 97 minutes
Starring Kathleen Turner, James Woods and Kirsten Dunst
Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
Screenplay and Directed by Sofia Coppola

IN SHORT: For once, an arthouse flick with an open ending (so to speak) didn't make me want to barf.

OK, that gets the Cranky attitude stuff out of the way so that I may praise a remarkably coherent first effort (as a writer/director) by Sofia Coppola, who took an unfair amount of razzing for appearing in her dad's Godfather III. Sofia's opening gambit is a story set against the teenaged angst of coming of age in the 1970s. While you know how it's going to turn out from the very beginning of the story, it's up to you to try to figure out the "why" of it all. For those of us past our teen years, there are enough touchstones in this flick to wake the dead (memories) and make us recall our own toying with suicidal impulses.[not me of course... I had to hit college to get seriously depressed...].

In a pleasant enough house in a pleasant enough suburb somewhere in the US of A live the Lisbon family. Mom (Kathleen Turner) is an overweight, frumpish woman. Dad (James Woods) is an emasculated and wimpy looking math teacher at the local high school. The young ladies -- played by Leslie Hayman, AJ Cook, Chelse Swain, Hanna Hall and Kirsten Dunst -- range in age from thirteen to seventeen and, as the story's adult narrator points out, no one in town can discern how two shlumpy parents turned out five examples of feminine perfection. Lux Lisbon (Dunst) is the centerpiece of the quintet; her introduction is shot in the manner of teevee commercials of the time (slo-mo and soft focus, with sun blasting from behind. All you need is Donovan singing "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" and you could sell soap or shampoo]. Five boys, distant admirers all, are the counterpoints to the five girls, though they can't do more than admire from a distance. By keeping most of the film focussed on Lux, and by lumping the boys together as an anonymous pool, Coppola keeps the story clean, focused and easy to follow.

The five Lisbon sisters all attend the local public school. They don't go to dances. They don't date. They rarely do much more than lounge on the lawn, and that happens only once in a blue moon. Being so unreachable naturally makes them all the more attractive. The sole male to make the effort, football star Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) is brushed off succinctly by Lux.

As our narrator (voiced by Giovanni Ribisi) tells us: "Cecilia was the first to go," though she will survive the attempt and be counseled by a hospital shrink (a cameo appearance by Danny DeVito). This unexpected behavior on the part of their youngest daughter gets the parents to loosen up a bit. The age appropriate boys are invited to a closely supervised party and we, the audience, get our first peek inside the cloistered world of the Lisbon clan. While the parents are strict, the world inside the Lisbon household is not that far from "normal." Even as Lux leads the charge towards teenage sexual rebellion after a group date for the homecoming dance, the clues that point to the inevitable are so subtle that I leave them for you to discover . . . which means that I'm so dense I could have easily spent hours doing the film student post-viewing dissertation thing.

Cranky should point out that his teenage years fell in the same time period, the 70s, and that there was one suicide among his peer group -- but not for any reason that matches what happens in this film. Still, the cast and production design, under Coppola's hand, nailed the look and feel of the Seventies. Dunst continues her run of notable performances but James Woods absolutely takes the cake as daddy wimp. While it's easy to picture Kathleen Turner as an evil shrew mom, her performance is restrained. The Virgin Suicides is a fair portrait of a fairly conservative family on whose heads tragedy falls like an avalanche.

I should point out that the reason I normally dislike open ended arthouse flicks is that most of 'em leave an open end 'cuz the screenwriter, usually the director as well, is just too damned lazy to do the job. So we get an artsy-fartsy excuse for an ending, and something to argue about over espresso afterwards. Coppola makes no excuses here. We know the girls are going to die, and they do. The exact reasons why are the mystery. Discussion is inevitable.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Virgin Suicides, he would have paid...


That's well above average for films on the arthouse circuit. Click for Cranky Critic® StarTalk with James Woods

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