Five exquisitely beautiful sisters dazzle and beguile the boys around them in this movie, set in the mid-1970’s. Amid the idyllic suburban stillness, there are intimations that all is not right. Huge elm trees are diagnosed with Dutch Elm Disease and ordered to be cut down. And the youngest of the Lisbon girls, only 13, tries to kill herself. The doctor shakes his head, “You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” She looks up at him, sadly, wrists wrapped in white gauze, “Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13 year old girl.”
A quarter of a century has passed, but the boys who longed for the Lisbon sisters cannot forget them. They hold on to relics and totems: a diary, scribbled notes decorated with hearts and stickers. And they tell each other over and over the events of that time, hoping that this time they will make sense.
There is no explanation for the unthinkably terrible act, and the movie does not try to provide one. Like the boys, we pore over their lives, looking for a point at which they might have made a different choice.
First-time director Sophia Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Jeffrey Eugenides, has a wonderful eye for detail and composition. The production design is perfect in every detail. There are painfully accurate moments as teenagers try to make conversation (“How’d your SATs go?” “You’re a stone fox!”) and connection (when the boys finally call the girls on the phone, all they can bring themselves to do is play records to them). The narration, beautifully read by Giovanni Ribisi, is lyrical and moving. But ultimately, the movie falters. It tries for metaphor — those dying elm trees, an asphyxiation-themed debutante party at which people wear gas masks decorated with glitter, the girls as princesses in a tower waiting for princes who cannot save them. And it tries for distance from its time or milieu. But like the collection of ephemera the boys hold onto for years, the movie has “not life, but the most trivial list of mundane facts.”
Kirsten Dunst is marvelous as the most adventuresome of the girls, and Josh Hartnett is fine as the high school hunk with a broken heart for every puka shell around his neck.
Parents should know that the movie’s theme may be very upsetting to teen-agers, some of whom may think it suggests that suicide is a romantic and powerful response to overly strict parents. In addition to the overall theme of sexual longing and repression, there are some sexual references and situations. One character smokes pot constantly (he is shown as an adult in a treatment center for substance abuse). Teenagers smoke and drink.
Families who see the movie should talk about what has and has not changed since the 1970’s, about why the girls were such an endless source of fascination for the boys, about why the response of the community seemed so heartless to the boys, and, of course, what could have led the girls to take their own lives and who, if anyone could have prevented it.
Other movies about the anguish of teenagers coping with longing and frustration include “Splendor in the Grass,” “Picnic,” and “Lucas.”