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Friday, May 5, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Virgin Suicides' reveals a bittersweet world of youth

Film.com

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Movie review

XXX 1/2 "The Virgin Suicides," with James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, from the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. 97 minutes. Broadway Market and Metro. "R" - restricted because of strong thematic elements involving teens.

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Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides" is such a disarmingly poetic - and specifically female - vision of adolescence that it belongs in a category of its own. Although it's about teenagers, it isn't a teen movie; although it has a mystery at its center, the puzzle is never solved; and although it's a drama, very little of dramatic import happens. (Very little that the title hasn't already told us, that is.)

What Coppola has achieved, however, is a sort of elegiac ode celebrating the lives - and the touching, naive beauty - of teenage girls.

Not that there aren't plenty of movies "celebrating" the beauty of teenage girls, with young actresses oozing sex appeal while lascivious cameras slide over their bodies. But Coppola - perhaps because she was once a teen actress herself (not very successfully), perhaps because this movie was made without an eye to the box office - is more interested in creating a haunting memory play, an affectionate mirror though which we see key moments in the young characters' not-quite-formed lives. (Early on, a girl in the film is complimented by a boy, and she gasps and giggles delightedly, her face lighting up, as if no one had ever said such words before.)

The story revolves around the five blond Lisbon sisters, aged 13 to 17. Over the course of several months in 1975, the girls cope with a death in the family, their absurdly overprotective parents (Kathleen Turner and James Woods, in near-caricature but nicely detailed turns), and their budding interest in boys.

Enter the coolest boy in school, Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), decked out in the 1975 high-school version of Armani: a Western-style shirt and thin puka-shell necklace. (In a nice detail, the adult Trip turns up reminiscing about his youth; he still wears cowboy shirts, but the effect is no longer dashing.) Trouble ensues, and the sisters are grounded, like princesses in a tower.

The story is told from the perspective of a group of neighborhood boys, one of whom (Giovanni Ribisi, in a sleepy, knowing voice-over) narrates the film as an adult. Among many fine performances, the sweet, sexy work of Kirsten Dunst stands out, as does Hanna J. Hall as the melancholy youngest sister.

Based on Jeffrey Eugenides' 1993 novel (seamlessly adapted by Coppola), "The Virgin Suicides" requires a certain suspension of disbelief. It makes no attempt to answer its own questions about teen suicide, and it presents an unabashedly romantic view of its heroines. But 28-year-old Coppola, in her directing debut, shows an astonishing ability to create a world: The period details feel just right, and the iconography of girls is everywhere, from the heart-laden doodles of the title graphics, to images of unicorns, perfume bottles, sunlit fantasies and a row of Nancy Drew books on a shelf.

What's remembered in the end is not the inevitable tragedy, but a moment of pure joy: The sisters, at a school dance for the first time, dance wildly to the strains of "Come Sail Away." Coppola allows us to hear the song not as an ironic example of cheesy '70s pop, but the way the girls would hear it - as a happy anthem. "The Virgin Suicides," terribly sad and terribly lovely, glides along on these moments, making it - like the girls - a haunting memory.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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