Sofia Coppola's Extraordinary "Somewhere"

by Caryn James
December 20, 2010 5:00 AM
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Sofia Coppola’s lovely chamber piece Somewhere feels like – and I mean this is the best possible sense – a love letter to her Dad.

At first it seems to be about the aimless life of Stephen Dorff’s character, an actor named Johnny Marco. He’s living at the Chateau Marmont between gigs, his days an endless chain of cigarettes and women, equally disposable -- although the Propecia by the sink and the way he examines his hairline in the mirror silently tell us he’s not carefree. But at heart the film is about the new-found relationship between Johnny and his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo ( played with a perfect girlish skip by Elle Fanning), who comes to stay for a few weeks.

Dorff and Fanning are magical together. As the father-daughter relationship develops we see that the best part of Johnny is how much he comes to genuinely like his kid. He watches her practice figure-skating and his eyes open at her poise and accomplishment. Cleo is matter-of-fact, not resentful, when she explains she’s been taking lessons for years. She cooks eggs Benedict for Johnny and his best friend at the Chateau; they play Guitar Hero. He takes her to Milan for a press day and the eat every flavor of gelato in the hotel room as a late night snack. When Cleo finds a mystery woman in a robe at breakfast the next morning, she shoots her father a lethal “What’s she doing here?” look that actresses many times Fanning’s age would admire.

Somewhere relies on those silent looks, and Coppola warns viewers at the start not to expect high drama. The film opens with a scene in which the camera never moves, as Johnny’s black Ferrari goes in circles in the desert, in and out of the frame, again and again. If you don’t settle into that pace of everyday life right away, the film is not for you. Coppola isn’t trying to win you over. She’s inviting you in on her terms, an uncompromising attitude that has allowed her to leap out from Francis Ford Coppola’s immense shadow.

In her four films, she has created a distinct style: she makes literary, witty character studies. The vastly underrated, sumptuous Marie Antoinette is just as much a character portrait as the delicate Lost in Translation. Taking a cue from its heroine, Marie Antoinette offers a candy-colored immersion in and sympathy for the young queen who is in over her soon-to-be-lopped-off head.

The only excess in Somewhere comes when Coppola includes two scenes of twins pole-dancing for Johnny in his room; we get the point after one dance and they’re not that interesting to begin with. But there’s not an extraneous scene between Johnny and Cleo. She has two cooking scenes, and they charmingly establish the new ease she’s feeling with her father.

Independent-minded though she is, Coppola hasn’t exactly run away from her personal connections. Francis is one of his daughter’s executive producers for Somewhere. She even used his old cameras from Rumble Fish (1983), with restored lenses, to give the film its bright but soft look. And one of the films’ most touching scenes is quite personal. A singing waiter who comes by to serenade Cleo and Johnny is a real-life fixture at the Chateau, remembered from Sofia’s own childhood.

If you embrace the film’s pace, there is a huge payoff: it is extraordinarily tender and sweet, without sentimentality. You don’t have to be a Daddy’s Girl to love this film (although it probably helps; takes one to know one) or to see that it’s deep emotion and confident grace make it one of the best of the year.

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