For sheer marquee value, you’d think a movie with the word virgin in the title would scarcely need suicides as well. Adapted by writer-director Sofia Coppola, in her feature debut, from Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel, The Virgin Suicides tells the story of the Lisbons, five beautiful teenage Catholic girls who grow up in 1970s suburban Michigan under the overprotective thumb of their plaid-jacketed, math-teacher father (James Woods) and fuddy-duddy killjoy of a mom (Kathleen Turner). Near the beginning, 13-year-old Cecilia (Hanna Hall) mysteriously kills herself, and we’re told by the narrator — a local boy — that her siblings will follow suit. Five sisters, five suicides: Are we headed for total heaviosity or what? I found much of The Virgin Suicides glum and preposterous — an operatically stilted adolescent martyr fantasy — and yet, as staged by Coppola, it’s well worth seeing. There’s a bracing small drama struggling to get out from all the heavy-handed teen doom.
That movie revolves around Lux (Kirsten Dunst), the most coveted of the Lisbon girls, and Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the swaggering doper jock who asks her to the homecoming dance. The amusingly laid-back yet imploring Trip, with his choker and Dorothy Hamill hair, has never wanted anyone this badly, and Dunst and Coppola show you why: It’s not just that Lux is a ”stone fox” — it’s that her repressed background renders her the ultimate forbidden fruit. Coppola, making inspired use of songs by Heart and ELO, envisions the dance as a lustrously tacky Middle American reverie, like the prom in Carrie without the bloodbath. It’s funny, touching, and true to watch these pre-ironic ’70s teenagers cope with their churning hormones; for a lovely moment, The Virgin Suicides takes the exquisite agony of high school sexual initiation just seriously enough. The rest of the movie takes it so seriously that Sylvia Plath herself might have told everyone involved to lighten up. B-