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Alone Again, Naturally

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*The Virgin Suicides (R)
Paramount Classics/American Zoetrope

Twenty-seven-year-old director Sofia Coppola's feature film debut, The Virgin Suicides, is a plaintive, whimsical meditation on adolescence and its accompanying melodrama.

When Jeffrey Eugenides' novel came out a few years back, receiving wide critical acclaim that catapulted him onto the list of the most important young novelists at work in America today, the book was an anomaly -- a wry elegy for a family of five teenage girls, all of whom managed to kill themselves within a year's time. The language was poetic; the story, darkly touching and wistful.

Coppola's screen adaptation remains absolutely true to the book, sticking with Eugenides' dramatic structure, maintaining a voiceover narration (provided by Giovanni Ribisi) and filling each frame with the mordant and often hilarious details of adolescent life and angst in the ultra-corny 1970s.

The Virgin Suicides is the story of the Lisbon sisters -- Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese -- an ethereal looking set of blondes whose quiet, secret life with their over-protective parents (Kathleen Turner and James Woods) is told from the point of view of the boys who live across the street in an upper middle-class Michigan suburb, quietly obsessing over the girls. "We felt the imprisonment of being a girl," says Tim Weiner, the narrator. "We knew that they knew everything about us, and we couldn't fathom them at all."

Indeed. Behind the ordinary faade of the Lisbon house, a fatal combination of parental piety and burgeoning sexuality eventually erupts. When 13-year-old Cecilia first attempts suicide and is then taken to a psychiatrist (Danny Devito) who tells her she has every reason to want to live, her reply is telling: "Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl."

Grim as it sounds, the film, like the book, is packed with enough period detail to create a fine sense of irony -- the boys are all rich, young princes living outside Detroit at the beginning of the demise of the American automobile industry; Dutch Elm disease is killing all the fine old trees that surround their stately homes; rock music is replacing the sweet, romantic pop tunes that color the boys' and girls' dreams; it is the beginning of the age of endangered species, the end of innocence.

Coppola's skill as a designer serves her well as a film director. Her scenes are immaculately drawn and colored. A fine cast of actors, a terrific though eery musical score and a delicate production quality combine to make The Virgin Suicides a successful mood piece and a well-told tale.

Turner and Woods turn in low-key, calibrated performances as the Lisbon's weird parents; and Kirsten Dunst barely contains the erotic hunger of her character, Lux. Young Josh Hartnett is extremely effective as Trip Fontaine, the boy who first breaks through to the inner sanctum of the Lisbons, setting off a chain of events that clinches their inevitable ruin.

There is a lovely scene late in the film, taken directly from the book, that encapsulates the sentiment behind The Virgin Suicides. The girls have been imprisoned by their parents, cut off from the world, and the boys across the street attempt to communicate with them by playing records into the telephone mouthpiece. It's a pop opera of '70s schlock -- Todd Rundgren's "Hello, It's Me," Gilbert O. Sullivan's "Alone Again, Naturally," The Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe," and the final, the ultimate "So Far Away," by Carole King. It's divinely insipid, sad and sweet.

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