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Flight of the Caged Birds

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2000


    'The Virgin Suicides' Leslie Hayman, Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook and Chelse Swain in Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides." (Paramount Classics)
There may be no doubt about the outcome of "The Virgin Suicides," but this bewitching suburban fable nevertheless trades in mystery. The question, however, isn't whodunit or how, but one that can never be answered: Why?

It all begins with a beloved tree in the Lisbon family's otherwise barren front yard. Diagnosed with incurable Dutch elm disease, it has been sentenced to death by the city. And shortly thereafter, the Lisbons' youngest daughter, 13-year-old Cecilia (Hanna Hall), attempts suicide. Her psychiatrist (Danny DeVito) suggests that things can't be that bad, to which she retorts: "You've never been a 13-year-old girl."

On her second attempt, Cecilia succeeds and, like the afflicted elm, it comes to seem that she was suffering from a contagious disease. For just as the other trees on the block wither and die, her four surviving sisters, all of them lovely and strong, also choose death over life. And though all this happened years ago, the seemingly idyllic Detroit suburb has yet to recover from the blight.

Twenty-five years later, the boys who once mooned over the Lisbon girls have grown into men, and they are still trying to solve the heart-rending mystery. They have gathered plenty of evidence over the years--old diaries, postcards, yearbooks, anecdotes--yet the truth remains as unattainable as the sisters were themselves. And of course there are the memories--the fuzzy, funny, dreamy stuff of this dark fairy tale.

The film marks the auspicious debut of writer-director Sofia Coppola, who has obviously inherited plenty of talent from her father, Francis Ford Coppola, but her approach is decidedly her own: intuitive, wry and illusory. And her screenplay, which is based on Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, is just as tough to categorize.

The title, however macabre, is also deceptive because the movie isn't really about the finality of death but about the dawn of desire and the loss of innocence. Add to that recipe dysfunctional parenting, the innocuousness of the burbs and the trials of adolescence. "The Virgin Suicides" shares themes with such American classics as "Stand by Me" and "Ordinary People."

The well-acted story flashes back to the '70s and the bedroom of young Tim Weiner (Jonathan Tucker), whose telescope is always focused on the Lisbon household. Tim and his friends spend hours waiting for a glimpse of Therese (Leslie Hayman), Mary (A.J. Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain) or Lux (Kirsten Dunst). Like so many princesses, the four have been hidden away from the world by a horrid witch.

In this case it's their mother (a grim-faced and fattened-up Kathleen Turner), an insanely possessive, emotionally constipated wretch who isolates her daughters from their peers. Somehow their henpecked father (shrinking, vacant-eyed James Woods) has persuaded Ma Lisbon to allow the girls to go to the prom at the urging of Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). A studly parody of the hunky jock, Trip can have any girl he wants except Lux Lisbon, and even she eventually comes around.

But unfortunately, everything Mother said was true. Lux wakes up on the football field the next morning to find Trip gone. Crushed and disillusioned by his callousness, Lux returns home, never to leave again.

Because of Lux's transgression, their mother removes the girls from school and puts them under permanent house arrest. As the four grow ever more miserable, the neighborhood boys do what they can from afar to keep up their spirits and even attempt a rescue. Sadly, they're too late.

That's the point. Youth can't be rescued. Eventually a sapling becomes a fallen tree, a point that's made here with eloquence, poignancy, laughter and longing. And Coppola, who's lost a brother, certainly seems to have drawn on that pain. There's something very human about this "Rapunzel" for our time.

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (R, 97 minutes) – Contains scenes of non-explicit sex and multiple suicide.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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