A dark comedy punctuated by moments of drama, The Virgin Suicides explores the emotional underpinnings of a family starting to come apart at the seams in 1970's Midwestern America. The Lisbons seem like an ordinary enough family; Father (James Woods) teaches math at a high school in Michigan, Mother (Kathleen Turner) has a strong religious faith, and they have five teenage daughters, ranging from 13-year-old Cecilia (Hannah Hall) to 17-year-old Therese (Leslie Hayman). However, the Lisbon family's sense of normalcy is shattered when Cecilia falls into a deep depression and attempts suicide. The family is shaken and Mother and Father seek the advice of psychiatrist Dr. Hornicker (Danny DeVito), who suggests the girls should be allowed to socialize more with boys. However, boys soon become a serious problem for Cecilia's sister Lux (Kirsten Dunst). Lux has attracted the eye of a high-school Romeo named Trip (Josh Hartnett), who assures Father of his good intentions. But Cecilia finally makes good on her decision to kill herself, throwing the Lisbons into a panic; and after attending a school dance, Trip seduces and then abandons Lux. The Lisbons pull their daughters out of school, as an emotionally frayed Mother keeps close watch over them. Meanwhile, Lux continues to attract the attentions of the local boys, and she responds with a series of clandestine sexual episodes with random partners as often as she can sneak out of the house. The debut feature from Sofia Coppola (whose father, Francis Ford Coppola, co-produced this film), The Virgin Suicides also features supporting performances from Scott Glenn and Giovanni Ribisi. The film was shown as part of the Directors Fortnight series as the 1999 Cannes Film Festival.
Previously criticized for her marginal acting skills, Sofia Coppola made her directorial debut with The Virgin Suicides and silenced her detractors. No amount of coaching from her director father (Francis Coppola) or husband (Spike Jonze) could have guaranteed a film this assured, and in adapting Jeffrey Eugenides's novel, Coppola demonstrates the sensitivity and emotional depth that this material demands. Surely the pain of youth and public criticism found its way into her directorial voice; in the story of four sisters who self-destruct under the steady erosion of their youthful ideals, one can clearly sense Coppola's intimate connection to the inner lives of her characters.
Played in a delicate minor key, the film is heartbreaking, mysterious, and soulfully funny, set in a Michigan suburb of the mid-1970s but timeless and universal to anyone who's been a teenager. The four surviving Lisbon sisters lost a sibling to suicide, and as its title suggests, the film will chart their mutual course to oblivion under the vigilance of repressive parents (Kathleen Turner and James Woods, perfectly cast). But The Virgin Suicides is more concerned with life in that precious interlude of adolescence, when the Lisbon girls are worshipped by the neighborhood boys, their notion of perfection epitomized by Lux (Kirsten Dunst) and her storybook love for high-school stud Trip (Josh Hartnett). Unfolding at the cusp of innocence and sexual awakening, and recalled as a memory, The Virgin Suicides is, ultimately, about the preservation of the Lisbon sisters by their own deaths--suspended in time, polished to perfection, and forever untainted by adulthood. --Jeff Shannon