“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
“Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.”
At this point in “The Virgin Suicides,” I knew I wasn’t watching just another teen movie. Far from the shallow high school comedies that proceeded it, Sofia Coppola’s feature debut is about the kind of emotions those movies tried to avoid, like depression and alienation.
This week, “The Virgin Suicides” received the Criterion Collection treatment, complete with a 4K restoration of the film, a making-of documentary, an essay from Megan Abbott and several interviews with the director, stars and author. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Coppola revealed Paramount Studio was afraid girls watching the movie would follow the Lisbon girls’ examples. That reaction mirrors the parents in the movie as they eyed their children nervously during a broadcast news report on a teen’s suicide.
Five sisters – Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese – are at the center of the movie adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel released 25 years ago. Their lives fascinate the local boys at their school in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and it is their memories of the girls that tell their story. Even when viewed through a nostalgic prism, the Lisbon sisters’ troubled inner lives are not erased by director Sofia Coppola’s lens. The girls’ pain is even more important to the story than the boys’ curiosity.
The movie starts when the youngest of the girls, Cecilia (Hanna Hall), attempts suicide. She’s the one who tells the doctor what so many other teen girls have told adults through the years. They can’t possibly understand the experience, and Cecilia looks and feels aloof as she reenters society. Adults try to patronize the sisters' feelings at various points in the movie, but the film doesn’t chastise or belittle their feelings, however dark they get.
In one dreamy montage, while reading Cecilia’s diary, the boys imagine the girls playing in a warm, sunny field, looking flirtatiously at the camera (and them). It’s so fantastical, there’s even a shot of the unicorn neighing in the same field. The girls act like carefree sprites unbridled by sadness or loss in the sequence, which at this point in the story, is far from the truth.
We see the girls’ bedrooms and bathroom at various points, showing off the pictures, candles, figurines, pink things, hanging tights and crosses in their space. The Lisbons are a strict, religious family and the cross is a near constant visual motif. The parents (played by James Woods and Kathleen Turner) tries to keep their daughters away from boys as long as possible, and their repression creates unintended consequences.
As the second-to-youngest Lisbon daughter, Lux, Kirsten Dunst plays one of the most difficult roles in the movie. Her character experiences the loss of a sister, heartbreak and from an outsider’s perspective, depression. Yet, she balances acting out with a functional calmness that allows her to slip in and out of classes on most days and continue to attract guys on most nights. Her behavior and that of her sisters are subtly varied to show a multifaceted depiction of mental illness. It could happen to anyone, and it doesn’t always look the same.
“We knew they knew everything about us, but that we couldn’t fathom them at all,” says the male narrator in the movie. He understands the kind of youthful loneliness many kids go through, something the Lisbon girls never had the chance to grow out of. For women watching the movie, “The Virgin Suicides” is almost like an out-of-body experience.