Sofia Coppola grapples with this rumination in The Virgin Suicides, her breezy adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' wry novel. That this is Coppola's debut feature seems incidental; the movie is as sumptuous as her father's support could make it, and her vision and timing already match the skills of many veterans. There's a massive machine behind Coppola, but she obviously knows how to get it into gear. She also understands the crisp, oblique horror and wistfulness of Eugenides' narrative, plunking down five enchanting princesses into an environment that is anything but magical.
It's the perspective that gives this material its weird edge. The Virgin Suicides is quite unlike Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, despite sharing its basic paradigm: dewy, adolescent whimsy butting heads with stern, oppressive mores, resulting in tragic release. Jackson's sweet-gone-sour film, based on a bloody incident involving two young soulmates in 1950s New Zealand, ensnared us in the magnificent visions of its female protagonists -- pioneers, one might darkly prophesy -- who directed their rage outward rather than imploding. In Coppola's take (and Eugenides' book), set 20-odd years later in the tragic kingdom of suburban Michigan, the dreams and fantasies of the five Lisbon sisters are kept largely under wraps. What we do see is hinted at in the random poetry of a purloined diary or in stoner-rock albums burned for spiritual salvation -- hardly deeply revelatory stuff. To amplify the intrigue, we spend the movie outside with a gaggle of smitten boys, peering in on the shimmering, unattainable girls.
"Nobody could understand how Mrs. Lisbon and Mr. Lisbon, our math teacher, produced such beautiful creatures," comments Giovanni Ribisi, the dryly melancholic narrator who sums up the book's chorus of voices, as the adult incarnation of one of the boys, Tim Weiner (youthful Jonathan Tucker). It is quite a mystery, because the preternaturally straight man (James Woods) and impotence-inducingly frumpy wife (Kathleen Turner) have begotten a singular quincunx of ethereal, intellectual, lyrical waifs, including Cecilia (Hannah Hall), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook), Therese (Leslie Hayman) and Lux (Kirsten Dunst). Apart from their Catholicism and all that that implies (crucifixes are scattered throughout the house), one cannot even imagine how such conceptions could have been possible between these two cold fish. Like any parents of adolescent girls, however, the old squares quickly find they've got more on their hands than they can handle.
The movie launches into its purpose with Cecilia, the youngest, in the bathtub, her little wrists slashed, clutching an image of the Madonna. Of course, as soon as the girl is revived, a heavy blanket of denial descends over the incident, and the perilously sensitive child is sent to psychologist Dr. Horniker (Danny DeVito, looking more '70s than he did in the '70s). Horniker employs Rorschach blots on Cecilia ("a banana, a swamp, an Afro," she intones, bored) and applies a pretty Band-Aid for her parents' benefit ("Cecilia didn't mean to kill herself"). Once we infiltrate the Lisbon home, we start to feel the unease ourselves. Local lad and lucky dinner guest Peter Sissen (Chris Hale) discovers it as we do: Something is off here.
The astute assessment continues, as the Lisbons, attempting to brighten everyone's spirits, host a spine-twistingly awkward party in their wood-paneled basement rec-room. The kids struggle to enjoy themselves with some of the worst ice-breakers on record ("Um, how did your SATs go?"), then have a little fun at the expense of retarded Joe (Paul Sybersma), until tragedy strikes again and the angel of death looms over these maidens. The Lisbon house is consumed by a thick despair, which withstands even the noble, pompous efforts of Father Moody (Scott Glenn, sly as hell) to dissolve it.
The angels of lust and melancholy provide the counterbalance for the rest of the movie, as the randy, all-American blonde Lux (such a common conservative Catholic name, that) discovers some wild oats growing in her field and takes to inscribing the name of the sexy garbage man on her panties. Her favor for the sanitation engineer swiftly declines, however, when roguish Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) falls madly for her, the only girl in school on whom his charms do not instantly work. As the neighborhood boys continue their fascinated vigil, Lux and bad-boy Trip grow closer, until, by way of some miracle, Trip and his friends manage to score dates with the Lisbon girls for the homecoming dance (a swooningly glittery affair created by production designer Jasna Stefanovic). That night, as curfews, hearts, plausibility (these girls are worried about anti-Semitism? Uh-huh, sure) and stringent parental guidelines are broken, a terrible new order descends on the Lisbon home, where the girls begin their slow suffocation.
Coppola has a way with actors, pulling knowing performances out of Turner and Woods that make one chuckle at the notion that these two were ever perceived as a sexpot and a tough guy, respectively. She also coaxes terrific work out of the five sisters, a tricky feat considering that they're essentially an allegorical presence, representing both budding passion and detached beauty. And Hartnett is hilarious, seeming for all the world like an extra from Dazed and Confused, his period-specific haircut forming his head into the shape of the penis that guides his actions.
The work is particularly impressive, given that the director freely admits that she lacks firsthand knowledge of suburban living. She certainly gets the colloquialisms ("Want some more pop?") and the landscape (diseased trees reduced to stumps) on the nose. True, there's nothing new here, and Coppola's cultural appraisal certainly isn't as ballsy and radical as she seems to think, but The Virgin Suicides may stand -- for the collapsed fantasies, libidinous freedom and cold reprobation of the age -- as a significant document of the daydream. Did our world really look like this? Were those princesses ever really there? The movie wisely leaves us to wonder.
Opens May 5 at the Tivoli.