The debut feature film from Sofia Coppola, it’s also one which came out of a series of events as after being given a copy of the book by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore which she soon after set about adapting into a script despite not having the rights to the book which were owned by Muse Productions who had already commissioned a script from Nick Gomez. With the rights to the project lapsing amongst issues with Gomez’s script Coppola saw her opportunity to pitch her own script while the book would also make her realise her own desire to be a director knowing how the book should be filmed.
While I consider myself a fan of her films much like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi this is a film which I have always struggled to get into as it suffers the same issues as Jeffrey Eugenides’ source novel though when it comes to the film it’s hard to place were the issues with the film lye as for a debut Coppola shows a lot of confidence behind the camera crafting a distinctive visual style as she paints a picture of suburban tranquillity and white picket fences alongside the dark intentions harboured by the Lisbon girls which they hide under the veil of perfection and as the living fantasy for the boys they leave to try and piece together what ultimately lead to their demise.
Much like Stand By Me Coppola’s debut is a coming of age tale with a dark edge in particular the allure the girl world inhabited by the Lisbon girls a yearning shown through the audience and the boys glances into this world through window or telescopes and it’s a theme established early on when one of the boys is invited to dinner taking the opportunity to root through the girls bathroom with a fascination that makes even the most mundane of items like perfume bottles and sanitary towels seem like sacred and rare objects. While Coppola certainly might have a reoccurring theme of burgeoning femininity throughout her films but here she actually manages to capture the curiosity of adolescent boys about girls and the adult world.
Narrated by Giovanni Ribishi playing an unidentified grown up version of one of the boys it’s made clear from the start that this is a mystery which even as adults they are still trying to figure out why it happened forming a morbid link to their past which still binds them together even though they have gone off to live their own lives. Despite this there is still the hope that when you watch the film that you might discover that missing detail which clarifies the mystery. The use of the narrator equally helps to tie together the multiple memories of the girls allowing characters to slip in and out of the girls lives outside of the main group of boys.
Despite the small budget and being a first time director here Coppola really pulls together an impressive cast from tapping into her own contacts to bring aboard Kathleen Turner who she co-starred alongside in Peggy Sue Got Married while her father Francis passed the script to James Woods the pair providing a much underrated performance as the girls parents. Woods here giving a much more subdue performance than we have come to expect from him while much like Turner its a pitch perfect supporting role that really provides a backbone for the film with Woods playing the mild mannered Science Teacher balancing out his over protective wife. At the same time seeing how they try to deal with the turbulent lives of their daughters from the opening attempted suicide by the youngest daughter Cecilia and the role they possibly played in her actions, while later attempting to protect their other daughters from the pain of the real world by keeping them within the family home. None of which is played with any of the overbearing parent cliches such as while Turner’s character might be a devout Catholic she’s not putting any of the girls into the cupboard of shame.
When it comes to the girls they are sadly undeveloped with the exceptions of the groups wildchild Lux (Dunst) and youngest daughter Cecilia whose role is limited but whose suicide bother her failed attempt which opens the film and her eventual demise serve as the catalysis for the events which follow as a memorable meeting with Danny DeVito’s Psychiatrist pushes for them to explore interactions outside of the family home something that Lux fully embraces along with her burgeoning femininity leads to it’s own impactful moment when she meets the school Lothario Trip Fontaine (Hartnett). The other sisters meanwhile never get the same development so that while they are present they are for the most part interchangable especially given so few moments to shine like the party their parents throw for them in the family basement only to find the boy / girl awkwardness hampers any meaningful interaction.
While the opening to the film is certainly strong it’s around the third act that the film suddenly stumbles and while there are certainly still some charming scenes such as the boys and the Lisben sisters using secret phone calls and messages sent through carefully picked records everything feels too aimless and lacking the flow to really pull the film through and certainly along with the clumsy epilogue to the story which while it might highlight how life continues to move on it just felt like it was causing the film to overstay it’s welcome.
Between this film and her initial short film Lick The Star Coppola is marking herself out as a talent of note, let alone a different breed of director to her father Francis Ford Coppola who comparisons would inevitability be drawn. But while he favoured grand scale epics Sofia showed her an eye for more intimate stories even though she wouldn’t truly nail down her style until her follow up Lost In Translation and while I certainly wished I enjoyed this film it’s at best a film if it’s flaws weren’t so noticeable.