The Virgin Suicides by Sophia Coppola and American Beauty, by Sam Mendes (the two released in 1999) both depict America’s depressed small towns.
The characters in these movies are torn with lust and desire for change and bigger ambitions; they choke on their aspirations.
Whether it is the Lisbon girls in Coppola’s movie longing for more than they know, more than their narrow-minded parents and small town, or Lester Bangs’s (Kevin Spacey) lust for youth and energy, both movies represent the will for excess. Limited in their freedom, the characters try to break free from their prisons (social and religious containments); while the Lisbon sisters are confined into their homes by paranoid parents, Lester Bangs has to live up to the expectations of his wife in their small suburban neighborhood. He falls in love with his daughter’s friend Angela, which makes him want to become young again and break free from his persona of middle-aged suburban dad (he starts working out and smokes weed). Desire is what links the two movies: Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) wants to date boys, Lester wants to get with Angela, while his wife has an affair with another man. There is also hidden desire; in both films, the characters are observed by other people in their own homes. Neighborhood boys observe Lux with their telescope, and the Bangs’ neighbor Ricky records Jane, Lester’s daughter, in her room. They hide and get into private spaces.
Trying to break away from the usual structure structures of America is what actually leads to a tragic ending.
The violent endings affect everyone involved, and it can be argued that the lesson of the two movies is not to dream too big and to obey the rules. Indeed, at the end of Virgin Suicides, all the Lisbon sisters die, in different ways. The neighborhood boys who spied on them have to witness the whole scene while their parents are left devastated. In American Beauty, Lester is killed by Ricky’s father, a homophobic veteran, which will then have an impact on his whole family.
As sad and defeatist as it is, the Lisbon sisters’ parents didn’t succeed in protecting their daughters, and by trying to confine them they lost them. Lester Bangs loved who he wasn’t supposed to, just like his wife (with her affair with a real estate agent), and his dreams led to his murder.
These movies raise questions on the issue of mental health, which is not being talked about a lot, and the emotional hopelessness that can be witnessed even in the most “normal-looking” households. It also questions the complexity of desire, love and social relationships.