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by: Michael Dequina

To use an exhausted cliché, the whole of The Virgin Suicides is far less than the sum of its parts. There are a lot of good individual elements on display in Sofia Coppola's screen adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, yet they never quite gel into something that completely satisfies--a shortcoming that can be blamed by the film's most distinctive quality.

With a title like The Virgin Suicides, the film's outcome is never in doubt. The setting is the suburban Midwest sometime in the 1970s, and the "virgins" in question are the five Lisbon sisters--Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Therese (Leslie Hayman), Mary (A.J. Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), and Cecilia (Hanna Hall)--who all take their own lives within the space of a year. The exact reasons why is the mystery at the heart of the film and the point of obsession of three lovestruck boys who live in the neighborhood, who are most prominently represented by a still-haunted, unseen adult narrator.

In filmic terms, to label something a "mystery" almost implies the presence of a clear-cut solution, but there are no real answers given in The Virgin Suicides, only questions--a bit ironic, considering its tell-all title. The questions, however, appear to be entirely the point. The film is supposed to be the shared memory of these boys, and like a memory faded through time, The Virgin Suicides has an ethereal, dreamlike vagueness. Not much is ever learned about any of the sisters, not even the focal Lux, whose adventurous sexuality (she's the exception to the "virgin" label) leads to a decision by their parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) that plays a part in the girls' destruction. But the thinness of their characters is forgivable since they are near-mythic figures to the boys.

I haven't named any of the boys nor the actors who portray them because they, too, have virtually no distinct identity individually nor as a group. While the dreamlike quality that Coppola gives the film is largely effective, from the evocative score (by Air) and visual style to the idealized vision of the Lisbon sisters, extending that to the boys is a major misstep. They are the audience's entry vessel into the story, but it's impossible to connect with them on an emotional (or any other) level since nothing is ever learned about them. As such, when the title event occurs, it's in an emotional vacuum; the audience can't really feel for the loss of the girls since it never really knew them, and without a sense of who the boys are and were, it's just as impossible to completely empathize with or understand their loss.

With the characters intentionally made sketchy, the actors are called on to shade them in, and Coppola coaxes fine work from them all. Especially noteworthy are Woods, both sleazy and charming as the model airplane-obsessed Lisbon patriarch; Dunst, who strikes the right balance of innocence and sensuality for Lux; and Josh Hartnett as Trip Fontaine, the jock stud who takes an interest in Lux.

Much like how strong individual elements add up to a curiously undernourished whole, the most memorable thing about The Virgin Suicides turns out to be its greatest hindrance: the atmosphere. While lending the film an eerie beauty as it unspools, the dreamy mood makes the film similarly weightless. The Virgin Suicides is indeed an entrancing experience, but there's nothing solid left to hold onto once it's over.

RATING: *** (out of *****)

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