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This is a film about moments in life. Some are so horrible you just want to forget them, but can't; others-- and they are rare-- are perfect, but they don't last. First time director Sofia Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, captures the essence of those moments in `The Virgin Suicides,' which is much more than `just' a film. It's a poem. And it's devastating. The story is told from the collective point of view of four young men, friends since childhood, who twenty years later are still trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle and make some sense of what happened those many years ago. All they know, even now, is that the five Lisbon girls were their friends, and then they were gone. And as you watch the story unfold-- like those boys-now-men who can't forget-- you wonder how such a thing could happen, as well.

Coppola (daughter of Francis Ford Coppola) makes a strong case for the science of genetics, as her debut behind the camera as writer/director is nothing less than brilliant. She does everything to perfection. She knows her characters inside and out and how to best bring them to life. And the film is so lyrically presented. With her camera, she captures the beauty of nature, as well as the beauty that can be found in the mundane, everyday things that make up a life, using music and the juxtaposition of images to optimum effect. Tragedy born of ugliness is one thing, but when tragic events are so poetically rendered, it's like an overwhelming darkness loosed upon the world from the abyss, which blots out the nurturing light of the Sun. And that's what Coppola has done with this film. She leads you through the beauty to find the beast; and though you know what's coming, the impact of it all is still staggering.

Central to the story is Lux, second youngest of the five teenagers, a character wonderfully realized by the talented Kirsten Dunst, whose angst is something to which everyone who has ever been a teenager will be able to relate. Repressed and sheltered, she nevertheless manages to express that spark of life roiling just beneath the surface and begging to be freed. Dunst plays her from deep within, with a richly textured performance that is right on the money. And as Cecilia, the youngest of the sisters, Hanna R. Hall gives a notable performance that is poignant and introspective, which underscores the foreboding that establishes the underlying tone of the film.

Excellent, also, as the other three sisters, are A.J. Cook (Mary), Chelse Swain (Bonnie) and Leslie Hayman (Therese). Coppola exacts memorable performances from each of them, and the casting of this film was terrific. Physically, it is easy to believe these five are sisters; and one especially-- Hayman-- bears a striking resemblance to Kathleen Turner, who plays Mrs. Lisbon.

As the mother of the doomed girls, Kathleen Turner turns in a performance fraught with subtle indications to the real key behind the mystery of the suicides: The ever present cross she wears around her neck, her actions following an especially spirited sermon at Mass one Sunday, and the religious icons present throughout the house, which combined with Mrs. Lisbon's attitudes are very telling in themselves. She epitomizes the overprotective parent in her futile attempts to shelter her girls from the world. That she loves them is never in question; the reasons behind her extreme position in their regard, however, is. Are her actions really for `their own good,' or for hers? Is her overprotection of them due to the fact that she doesn't want anything untoward to happen to them for their sake, or is it because she couldn't bear it herself? In the end, who is she really protecting? Looking beautiful, but rather matronly-- as befits the character-- Turner does an exemplary job of bring Mrs. Lisbon to life. She is the pivotal character of the film, and she makes the most of it with an extremely credible performance.

As Mr. Lisbon, James Woods gives an affecting performance with his portrayal of a loving husband and father whose position is never quite certain; he acquiesces to Mrs. Lisbon on just about everything, but does have at least one moment when he is able to reason with his wife on the girls' behalf and prevail. Ultimately, however, it becomes a pivotal moment that leads to tragic consequences. But Woods plays it well, taking a rather middle-of-the-road stance with his character, who retreats into his work as a math teacher when life gets too close.

The supporting cast includes Josh Hartnett (Trip), Michael Pare (Adult Trip), Scott Glenn (Father Moody), Danny DeVito (Dr. Horniker), Jonathan Tucker (Tim), Anthony DeSimone (Chase), Lee Kagan (David), Noah Shebib (Parkie) and Joe Dinicol (Dominic). Coppola's film is a taste of what it must be like to be a young girl, growing up in a repressive environment and laden with the reasonless guilt of a self-serving mother who finds sin even in innocence. `The Virgin Suicides' is a brilliant, thought provoking film that makes a profound statement about the artifice of love and the inability to recognize denial in oneself, especially in a parent who seeks to protect, perhaps, only to assuage personal fear. A powerful, beautiful film, and without question one of the best of the year (2000). I rate this one 10/10.

- jhclues