The Virgin Suicides was director Sofia Coppola's first film. In a way this is surprising: this movie balances wry humor with wistful nostalgia with deep sadness, and it is hard to believe that a rookie filmmaker could manage to pull off any of those subtle tones much less mix all of them together into one well balanced whole.
In other ways, however, it is easy to believe that The Virgin Suicides was the work of a very young artist. For starters, the way that Coppola captures the day to day existence of a teenage girl feels deeply authentic. The Virgin Suicides is a moody drama that focuses on the five Lisbon sisters as they bounce between euphoria and melancholy, and Coppola is clearly old enough to understand that the way that they cycle through highs and lows is ridiculous... But she is also clearly young enough that she can still sympathize with where they are coming from; a big part of the movie's tricky tone comes directly from her ability to distill their contradictory desires into one cohesive whole.
However, the most obvious sign that this movie was made by a young director is that it exists at all; I just can't see a mature filmmaker wanting to tell a lightly comic story about five teenaged girls who decide to kill themselves.
Don't get me wrong - the majority of The Virgin Suicide's story would appeal to any number of seasoned auteurs. For the most part this is a coming-of-age story, and clearly older directors like to make films about children on the cusp of adulthood. (To pick two semi-random examples, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese both made movies about teens when they were pushing 70 - War Horse for the former, Hugo for the latter.)
And I don't say that because I think that seasoned professionals wouldn't respond to the story's themes; on the contrary I think that artsy types never tire of dissecting suburban ennui with a fine tooth comb. (For example, White Bird in a Blizzard was Greg Araki's twelfth film.)
However, the film's ending - where all of the Lisbon daughters kill themselves for reasons that even they themselves probably do not understand - would probably make the film a hard sell for any filmmaker who is old enough to be a parent. And if they were the sort of miserable bastard who would be interested in a story with such a tragic ending they would probably be disinterested in all of the lighter aspects that occupy the movie's middle. There just aren't that many auteurs that mix generalized nostalgia and personalized horror willy-nilly; most fully formed artists either make a career out of staring directly into the darkness or else they try to avoid it altogether.
And for good reason: smart creators know that it is all too easy for a film with this many tones to feel schizophrenic. Indeed, The Virgin Suicide can be rather inconsistent - there are times when it achieves a certain level of poetry, and there are times when it feels far too glib. It all comes down to whether you can put yourself in the Lisbon girl's juvenile headspace or not. Because if you can think like a teen then the film's attempts at poignancy will probably be effective, but if you see this story from adult perspective then it becomes a hollow exercise in sentimentality, one that falsely glamorizes suffering.
For the most part Coppola stays on the right side of the poignancy/glibness line, mostly because she completely banishes any adult perspectives from the film. The Lisbon parents are treated as ciphers, and the only non-Lisbon adults that we ever meet are jokes. (In particular the film treats the local newscasters as egotistical clowns.) As such, it is surprisingly easy to buy into the idea that suicide could be a poetic method of self expression for a melancholy teen - because while that isn't an accurate portrait of reality, that is an accurate portrait of how a teenager sees reality.
And as a man who firmly believes that cinema should be honest I don't want to dismiss that wholly... But I do have to dismiss that at least partially, because this film really does goes a bit too far in romanticizing the unromantic. There are times when Coppola acknowledge the narrowness of her narrative - for example there's a scene where some boys flip through the youngest Lisbon girl's diary and treat her banalities about what she ate for dinner as if they were mysterious missives from another planet, and at such times you have to laugh at their childlike gullibility. But those scenes are few and far between, and for the most part this film depicts the Lisbon girls as they would wish to be seen - as unknowable angels who have somehow been granted the ability to access the universe's most invisible truths. The film even ends with the narrator explaining that everyone who ever met those poor departed teens never stopped thinking about them, which is the exact result every sad teenager dreams of. (Meanwhile, their parents inner feelings are never considered by anyone; after their daughters die they meekly drive off to parts unknown and no one seems to miss them.)
Ultimately, my ambivalence about the Virgin Suicides is probably a by-product of my age. I first saw this when I was in college and I was a lot more emotionally open back then - thus I found this film's mixture of sweetness and silliness and pathos a lot easier to swallow. Now that I've seen more suffering first hand I find the way that it glamorizes tragedy to be reckless and a bit false... But honestly, that says just as much about me as it does about the movie; I think that if I still had the ability to tap into my youthful self I would probably appreciate this film a lot more.
Which gets at why I think this film had to be made by a young director. Anyone - regardless of how old they are - can make a good movie about the external actions of some teenagers, but it takes a person who is genuinely youthful to make a movie that accurately reflects a teen's internal naivety. I'm glad that Sofia Coppola made this movie because it is consistently compelling and it even occasionally achieves greatness - but I'm also glad that she made it when she did, back before she joined Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon on the wrong side of the generational divide, because I just don't think that she could make the same movie today.