Virgin Suicides (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

James Berardinelli started his review of this film by saying that Sophia Coppola is better as a director than she was as an actor.

Whew, there's an insight worthy of Steven Hawking, eh? Ed Wood was better as a director than Sophia was as an actor. Everybody is better as a director than Coppola was as an actor.

Although, in all fairness, Anna Nicole Smith has never directed.

I hear that Michelangelo was a lot better sculptor than he was a baseball player. 

Oops, I got distracted. What I meant to say is this. This movie could have been the worst piece of crap ever filmed, and Sophia would have topped her acting credentials, but the film is too good to be judged by that criterion. Sophia adapted the screenplay from a Jeffrey Eugenides novel, then directed, and she did damned good at everything.

But don't go out and rent it just yet. It's a painfully honest reminiscence of some boys growing up in the 70's, for whom their adolescent highlight was the suicide of all five pretty (and often fantasized about) sisters in an eccentric neighborhood family. As you might guess, it's about the pain of growing up, told from both the male and the female perspective. The main story, about one of the sisters (Kirsten Dunst), is about the shattering of dreams, and the point in life when the romanticized ideal of sex turns into reality, complete with betrayal and disappointment.


What shame that this film was rated R purely for thematic elements. One brief modest sex scene. No nudity, language, or violence either, but the MPAA must have thought it too intense for those under 17.

Frankly, those excluded teens are the people who would have liked it most. It should have been PG-13, in my opinion.

The basic plot. One daughter is troubled, commits suicide. The parents first become overprotective of their other girls, then try to work toward normalcy. When the attempt at normalcy fails - one daughter stays out all night after her prom - the mother draws a protective curtain around the girls and imprisons them in the house. This meets with disastrous reactions, eventually including the mass suicide of the four remaining daughters.

No, Ingmar Bergman didn't write it. You can tell because of four things:

1. It concentrates on the perspectives of the adolescents, not the adults.

2. It dwells not on the ones who died, but on those left behind.

3. If it were Bergman, they would have died from long protracted illnesses, their suffering magnified by the grief of those surrounding them.

4. It mixes lots of sweet and humorous scenes in matter-of-factly alongside the horrible central tale.

One of the strangest things about it is the juxtaposition of the normalcy of the acting and the other life situations, to the sensationalized and frankly unbelievable saga of the girls. Not only do all five daughters commit suicide, the last four at the same time (but in all different ways), but nobody really presses the parents to send the four of them back to school after they have been missing for weeks after the prom. The authorites let the father pass it all off with a glib comment. Of course, this can't happen in real life. Suburban parents do not have the option to suddenly imprison their children and deny them education. But the story simply says - "this is the way it is" - and builds the film around the characters' responses to it. If you accept it, it seems to work, and sucks you in completely as if it could really have happened.

It's a good tale, told well, and acted well. But don't pick it up as a rental unless it sounds like your kind of theme, because it's not a mass-market product.

I really think that Kirsten Dunst continues to solidify her credentials as one of the best performers of her generation, showing a gift for realistic drama as sharply honed as her comic touch and, although she doesn't really try to be blatantly sexy, she's pretty easy on the eyes as well.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Anamorphic widescreen, 1.85:1, enhanced for 16x9.

  • minor features - trailers, a "making of"

The mother is played effectively by Kathleen Turner, almost unrecognizable from her sleek youth except for her unique voice.

Out of type, James Woods plays the girl's doofy dad, basically a warm and decent man, but a natural peacemaker who avoids conflict, and thus allows his wife to implement her Draconian if well-intentioned plan to shelter the girls. I liked his interpretation. He's obviously a bright actor who has studied this type of guy, and he managed to play him effortlessly, humanly, and without caricature, despite the fact that it's far from his normal acting range. The audience feels a strange compassion for him, despite his (mostly passive) contribution to the family's problems. We want him to stand up to his wife, but we don't hate him when his failure to do so leads to tragedy. I think that says a lot about the depth of Woods' portrayal.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: between three and three and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 85.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. This movie was very well received by critics. 84% positive reviews overall, and 91% from the top critics.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: consistent with the critics, IMDb voters score near classic levels at 7.4, Apollo users a similar 71/100.
  • With their dollars ... it did okay within its targeted audience. It was made for six million dollars, and brought in about that amount domestically from a very limited distribution (275 screens). Obviously, there can't be a massive market for a movie about mass suicide which is pervaded by a feeling of emptiness. And there was the additional complication of the r-rating, excluding younger teens from a movie about them, and with some clear appeal to the high school audience.

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