Photo by Sidney Baldwin
Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel, The Virgin Suicides, is social satire stitched inside a coming-of-age tale. It’s filled with dark, often bitter comedy whose purpose isn’t so much to generate laughter as it is to dismantle, or at least insistently pry at, the involuted mysteries that lie between female reality and male imaginings of that reality. The book pivots on boys and girls on the brink of adulthood, and achieves sucker-punch poignancy through the veracity of its observations. At the story’s center are the five beautiful Lisbon sisters, ages 13 through 17, who live with their religious, mousy parents, and who all commit suicide within the span of a single year. Having taken hold of the neighborhood boys’ imaginations while alive, the girls become objects of obsession after death. Years later, the sisters enter the realm of myth, still shadowing the lives of the now-grown men at every turn.
Sofia Coppola, who’s directed the film from her own screenplay, narrowly misses making the story work on the screen. All the tones of the book — satiric, reflective, deeply sad — flow smoothly in and out of one another. The cast — Kathleen Turner and James Woods as the parents, Kirsten Dunst as Lux, the second-youngest and prettiest of the girls, Josh Hartnett as a high school stud — breathe life into what are essentially outlines, while the film has the flat, slightly muted look of movies from the decade it’s set in, the ’70s. Coppola has an intuitive grasp on film language. She uses still photographs and montages to portray the boys’ overblown fantasies, along with period furniture, clothing and loud color schemes that stop just shy of caricature. The soundtrack is crammed with music from the era — ELO, Carole King, Styx, Heart, the Bee Gees — and is especially potent in a scene in which the sisters and their admirers play phone tag, ringing each other up and, in lieu of conversation, holding the phone to the speakers as records play.
But Coppola is thwarted by her fumbling of the most crucial details from the novel and by her frequent misreading of its comedic notes. Only a few pages into the book, a doctor examining Cecilia — the youngest sister and the first to attempt suicide — remarks, “You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets,” to which the girl replies, “Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” Her response is dry, bracing and sobering, and lets us know that this tale is going to set up, then knock down, the myths and the dismissals of the female world, of both male and adult condescension. In the film, though, it just sounds like a punch line.
Coppola’s most glaring misstep is her interpretation of Eugenides’ conception of the girls and their parents. The whole story is told in flashback, with a narrator (one of those neighborhood boys, now an adult) who vividly relays the emotional press of adolescent life, while filling in facts and perspectives that the teenage boys could never have grasped. The gap between the girls’ physicality and the boys’ perceptions is the core of the story, and Coppola herself closes it without real purpose. In the book, the boys — who have only glimpsed the girls in crowded school hallways or spied on them through a telescope — think the girls are all breathtakingly beautiful until they attend a party and see the sisters up close. They discover that only Lux is what could be called pretty; the others are rather generic, even unattractive. But the actors playing the sisters are all budding beauties, an aesthetic choice that not only flies in the face of the boys’ first life-lesson about their fantasies, but flattens the book’s most powerful observation: that men rarely really see women, and rarely integrate the layers of their objects of desire. Coppola keeps the boys’ fantasies intact — even glosses them up a bit — and by doing so keeps the girls on lockdown inside adolescent-male fantasy. In the end, the film is about surfaces — those of the film, which is so well-crafted, and those of the girls, who are so poorly served.
Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball is also very much about surfaces, choices and how the two are synthesized — both by the director (who, like Coppola, is making her feature debut) and by her characters. It’s a better, more deeply realized film than The Virgin Suicides, however — in fact, it’s radical. The lead character, Monica, is a professional black woman athlete who’s determined to forge her career path, even if it means risking the love of her man. Hot-tempered and driven, a resolutely upper-middle-class girl who’s an engaging mix of vulnerability and court cockiness, Monica is unlike any black female we’ve ever seen on the big screen. What makes this all the more remarkable is the fact that Prince-Bythewood constructs this character by deploying and exploding cinematic cliché. She adheres faithfully to classic film structure, but flips it so that it’s girl-meets-boy. The grown woman goes on a professional and personal journey that is given the same weight and importance as the man’s, with eternal questions — Who am I? Will I ever find my dream, my true love? Why doesn’t my mother/father/child love me? — seamlessly woven throughout.
Monica (Kyla Pratt, who became a minicelebrity in the feisty ads she did for the WNBA) and Quincy (Glenndon Chatman) first meet in 1981, when her family moves into the house next door; they’re both 11 and full of preteen bravado. The blueprint for their relationship is mapped out immediately when she challenges him to a game of basketball and he foolishly underestimates her. Unnerved by her skills, trash-talking and cool insistence that she’ll be the first woman in the NBA, Quincy first reacts with shock, then shoves her to the ground, scarring her face. The act fills him with remorse but, more important, foreshadows the passion and struggle that will define their relationship. Staring at the still-bleeding wound in the mirror, she beams with pride. The scar not only permanently mars the girly femininity she so despises, and that her mother so values, but is proof that she held her ground.
Flash ahead to 1988, and the two (now played by Sanna Lathan and Omar Epps) are in high school. He’s now a sexy MVP jock on a straight path to a college scholarship, and she’s a short-fused but talented female athlete desperate to prove herself and, hopefully, win a scholarship. Both end up at USC, where she struggles to carve out a place for herself while he leads the charmed life of a star, but their childhood rivalry has finally given way to love. When a devastating bit of news throws Quincy off his course, he forces Monica to choose between him and her dreams, with neither able to foresee the repercussions.
Although the writing and the directing are smart and purposeful, the movie takes flight on the strength of its performances. There’s Debbi Morgan’s transformation from a sexy trophy wife to a heartbroken, hardened and betrayed woman; Alfre Woodard’s sly comedic turn as a prissy stay-at-home mom; and Dennis Haysbert’s fading NBA star whose attempts to mold his son into a better man than he is backfire horribly. Yet it’s the lead performances that really make Love & Basketball. Lathan and Epps have beauty and presence to burn, but they also illuminate the heart and soul of their characters through their attention to detail: in the way Monica, more at home in sweats than dresses, sits slumped and spread-legged in her prom dress, the way Quincy reacts with tears of fury at his father, the way that the weight of adulthood even alters how the two walk. But it’s the scenes on the court, with the adult Monica and Quincy playing against each other and their own history, that leave you breathless. While Me’Shell Ndegéocello simmers on the soundtrack, Prince-Bythewood and her actors push the moment to an almost unbearable pitch. What’s at stake is nothing less than redemption, and the payoff is a perfect movie moment — one that cinches the film’s modern-classic status.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES | Written and directed by SOFIA COPPOLA Based on the novel by JEFFREY EUGENIDES | Produced by CHRIS HANLEY, FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA, JULIE COSTANZO and DAN HALSTED Released by Paramount Classics | Citywide
LOVE & BASKETBALL | Written and directed by GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD | Produced by SPIKE LEE and SAM KITT | Released by New Line Cinema | Citywide