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Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook, and Hanna Hall in The Virgin Suicides (1999). Image: © Paramount/IMDb

‘I’ve been driving out to the suburbs / To park at the Goodwill / And stare at the chemtrails’
—Phoebe Bridgers, ‘Kyoto’

In 1995, my parents visited a psychic in Harbin, a very cold city in north-eastern China known for two things: its unbearable winters, so bone-chilling that some of the lowest temperatures on Earth outside of Antarctica have been recorded there, and an annual Ice and Snow Festival that tries to make the otherwise sombre season more bearable, where families roam around in multi-layered down puffers, shuffling through cavernous frozen sculptures and whizzing down icy slippery slopes, treacherous if not for the landing pad of powdered snow at the bottom.

My parents had married earlier that year in a ceremony typical for the time—a whole red brocade and golden flourishings affair, memorialised afterwards by photos shot against marled backdrops. It would be two years before I was in the picture, but by my mother’s account, the psychic told them someone (or something) would enter their lives before the millennium was out, and inspire them to move far, far away from the icy city where they had spent their whole lives.

As psychic readings go, this one was pretty tame. My parents were young, after all, only in their mid-twenties, and they were coming of age in the tail-end of an emigration trend—the result of a slight easing of restrictions, a decade earlier, around citizens leaving the country. Still, I don’t think either of them expected the reading to turn out quite so accurate; not when they first discussed inklings of moving away, not when they fast-tracked their visas and packed their lives’ belongings within the space of three weeks, not even when they arrived at Sydney Airport with a two-year-old me in tow, just a few months shy—as the psychic had predicted—of the new millennium.

*

That same year, The Virgin Suicides debuted at Cannes. In many ways, its arrival had been preordained, too. Not by a psychic, but by the last name of its director—it felt like destiny that Sofia Coppola, then a first-time filmmaker, would follow the litany of Hollywood magnates in her family (among them her father, Francis Ford, and her brother, Roman).

For as long as there has been cinema, there has been darkness brewing behind white picket fences.

Even so, The Virgin Suicides was startling. For its subject matter, sure, which seemed concocted to provoke conservative outrage over its scandalous depiction of the sinful trinity—sex, death, and adolescence—but also the masterful precision with which Coppola crafted the suburban imagination.

A melancholic malaise hangs like fog over the entire film, whose story, by now, is well-known. Five teenaged sisters reside in a nondescript house somewhere in suburban Michigan under the watchful eye of their ultra-religious mother and maths teacher father. There is middle child Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst), beguiling and self-destructive, a blur of Mary (A.J. Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), and Therese (Leslie Hayman), and the youngest, Cecilia (Hannah R. Hall), who meets an untimely, gruesome death early on into the film by suicide.

As its title suggests, the fates of all of the sisters are sealed at the outset. Neither Coppola’s film, nor the Jeffrey Eugenides novel on which it’s based, are very interested in building any linear suspense. And yet suspense lingers anyway. Like an inverted detective story, not so much a ‘whodunnit’ as a ‘whydunnit’ (or indeed, a ‘how’), The Virgin Suicides’ ragtag gang of boyish narrators, knee-deep in wistful infatuation, litigate the details of the Lisbon sisters’ deaths again and again, reaching no conclusions—only non-sequiturs and red herrings, each as opaque as the last.

This kind of suburban mystery isn’t—wasn’t—new. For as long as there has been cinema, there has been darkness brewing behind white picket fences: the earliest Hollywood melodramas, with their heightened domestic anxieties and ills; satires like The Stepford Wives (1975) offering gaudy, over-stylised facades as critique; even The Virgin Suicides’ peers, like the sensationalist American Beauty (1999), armed with shopping lists of reasons why suburbia isn’t all that it seems, as if we didn’t know that already.

The Virgin Suicides, then, wasn’t so much an invention but a reinvention—one whose mystery lingers, even on the 20th anniversary of its Australian release. Unlike their forebears, Coppola’s suburbs aren’t merely facades to be torn through, or backdrops to more riveting capers—they’re an entity as alive as the Lisbon sisters themselves, which is to say, possessing a sort of aliveness so strange, so forbidden that it is difficult to describe it without resorting to diluted platitudes. Like: an ethereal sort of existence. Or: so transcendental as to be totally disconnected from the world around them.

Like the Lisbon sisters, the unnamed suburbs of The Virgin Suicides know, inherently, the value of desire. The sisters are desired, ogled in school hallways by hormonal classmates, who they wield in their own desire to expand their lives beyond the beige confines of their household. The suburbs, meanwhile, carry their own allure—a conflation of class desire, material desire, and a desire of prim normality ensuring that any deviation to the illusory ideal of white suburbia is quashed beneath pruned hedges and flowering gardens. Coppola presents both—the sisters and their suburbs—in haloed light and generous sunbeams that grace their best features while concealing their worst. One is never sure of their reality, but maybe that’s the appeal.

*

The streets of The Virgin Suicides—they’re how I imagine my parents might have viewed Sydney, which, in the year 2000, still maintained a level of easy artlessness, of warm days and balmy nights that would’ve seemed like an oasis for a couple who had lived through such barren Harbin winters.

It’s a diasporic tale as old as time—the young parents moving overseas with a dreamy ideal of upwards mobility, the kind connoted by sprawling lawns and wide, verdant boulevards, Vaseline-lensed images that seemed to soften the harder you stared at them.

My earliest memories of Sydney are understandably spotty—the sound of cars outside our first shoebox apartment; sweaty walks up that deadly hill to our next; eating string cheese in the one after that, and the one after, and the one after. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but we moved so often that each place now blurs into one conked-out melange where everything felt both uniquely new and calming. As a child, it was easy to ignore the weird idiosyncrasies of our worst living conditions—only recalled now via photographic evidence in keepsake albums, revealing mouldy ceilings, threadbare couches, and holes punched in walls by previous occupants—when the best came with parks down the block and patches of carpeted sunshine where the afternoon light hit just right.

It’s a diasporic tale as old as time—the young parents moving overseas with a dreamy ideal of upwards mobility, sprawling lawns and wide, verdant boulevards. Reality wasn’t quite so rose-tinted, though.

Reality wasn’t quite so rose-tinted, though. When we moved into our first house in 2009—in Carlingford, a suburb home to Australia’s first Mormon church and not much else—my parents’ overwhelming reaction was relief. I remember this, because I was 12 and bratty, and my dominant emotional state was apathy, which made every other entry on the emotional spectrum almost impossibly heightened. I lay on the floor in an empty room and watched 144p music videos on our patchy internet all afternoon as the number of cardboard boxes surrounding me dwindled and dwindled, until everything was finally packed away, and life could begin.

Later that night, as we ate our first dinner in the house—which felt like our first dinner ever, like re-discovering how to speak, or eat, or use utensils again—my mother looked out the window and cried. Not heavy, heaving sobs, or even quiet, sniffly tears, but a cry that was so silent it went undetected until she turned back to us with cheeks wet. It had always been her dream, she said, to live somewhere with a backyard so big it would take a day’s work to tend to the fallen leaves, the weeds overgrowing in flower patches. After a while, we continued eating as if nothing had happened at all, but throughout the next seven years we lived there, every time I felt trapped in that house, every time I hated Carlingford for being a suburb where nothing happened, every time I fantasised about packing up and leaving it all behind, I thought about what she said and felt a deep, indescribable guilt.

*

I wonder now if that guilt springs from suburbia’s fundamental dilemma. Living in the suburbs is a privilege; it means you have succeeded, on some level, at the American (or Australian) dream of stable domesticity, a house and a car and a job, with which one can comfortably while away their years. At the same time, though, this necessary safety smoothly, noiselessly, slips into a sticky, cloying mundanity, a dictatorial sameness allowing little room for challenge. To reject suburbia’s assimilatory power is to take the privilege it affords for granted.

This kind of suburban angst—where the desire for more clashes with the gratitude for having enough—permeates all of Coppola’s films, even if they’re transposed away from an actual suburban setting. In Lost in Translation, it manifests as an interminable sense of stuck-ness—in a foreign city, in a relationship that’s safe but stagnant, in one’s own hesitation to take risks, lest they fall flat. In The Bling Ring—a campy, true-crime romp of five teenagers raiding the closets of the rich and famous—Coppola lays bare the lust for more, more, more. More fame, more attention, more glitz and glamour than everyday life can offer.

To reject suburbia’s assimilatory power is to take the privilege it affords for granted…where the desire for more clashes with the gratitude for having enough.

All of these existential woes are crystallised in The Virgin Suicides, only concentrated under one roof. A glimmer of clarity appears midway into the film in the form of a school dance, which the Lisbon parents allow their daughters to attend at the needling behest of Lux’s admirer Trip Fontain, a moppy-haired, leather-clad Josh Hartnett. Under metallic cut-out stars and the cosmic shadows of a disco ball, everything feels indulgently illicit in the way that all first-time experiences do as an adolescent. But it goes awry—Lux misses curfew, falling asleep on the sports oval after a secret tryst with Trip—and the sisters are locked in the house indefinitely as punishment.

Weeks go by. The sisters are withdrawn from school; any connections to the outside world, including Lux’s treasured records, are banished. ‘We’re suffocating,’ Lux says, as they languish across bedroom floors, and sneak glances at travel catalogues to far-off continents as a means of imaginary escape. In the insularity of their house—so claustrophobic that I often find myself forgetting to breathe, even after countless re-watchings—the suburban becomes all-consuming. The sisters go to that most extreme length to rid themselves of its chokehold, and the macabre takes over.

*

Now that many of us are spending a great deal of time back in suburban homes—perhaps the homes of our childhood—The Virgin Suicides has been hailed as the perfect isolation watch, a mirror to our own cooped-up frenzies. And whilst my isolation is nowhere near as severe as the Lisbon sisters’, some days I can still sense myself regressing. I listen to cheesy indie bands that soundtracked my 2010s. I read old, embarrassing emails I sent in high school to long-lost friends. I feel the familiar longing of escape, the suburban angst of my adolescence—the same angst experienced by the Lisbon sisters, and so many others growing up in neat houses on anonymous streets. I start to become the closeted teen again, imagining brighter, queerer worlds beyond the oppressive assimilation of the suburbs.

 

I’d like to think I understand my parents’ idealisation of the suburban dream now, and why it was never quite congruous with the life I wished for myself. For them, it was a dream of the model minority, the house with a backyard the trophy that signified we’d beaten the odds. Assimilation seemed easier than the alternative: an uphill battle in a country where xenophobia continues to reign supreme. I don’t begrudge them for this, not at all, but I am still learning how to mediate between my place—or lack thereof—in the suburban landscape with their comfortable complacency.

Imogen McCluskey’s 2018 film Suburban Wildlife offers a hint into this kind of mediation. Set somewhere deep in Australian suburbia, the film follows four friends after their university graduation. Life feels unravelled, stretching out into an uncertain expanse for the first time. The camera searches for signs in the sky, swirling and dipping, looking out towards soccer fields lit by twilight, and houses with red brick and wrought iron. As in The Virgin Suicides, there’s a real romanticisation of the suburbs here, even as they close in around each member of the group—Louise (Hannah Lehmann), who’s already booked a one-way flight to London; Kane (Alex King), who dreams of moving to LA; Alice (Priscilla Doueihy), dealing with anxiety from a new relationship; and Nina (Maddy McWilliam), coming to terms with her own sexuality.

Assimilation seemed easier than the alternative: an uphill battle in a country where xenophobia continues to reign supreme.

It’s Nina’s story that interests me most. At a graduation party, she kisses a girl in the shadows behind a wall, pushing things a little too far, a little too aggressively—she needs her realisation of sexuality to happen now, as if it were a gateway to better things. Later, on a last-hurrah weekend with her friends out to the bush, she slips away with a charming, more experienced stranger to have her first sexual experience in the back seat of a car.

Not that I would have admitted it at the time, but for years, in that Carlingford bedroom, I used to fall asleep concocting wild scenarios not unlike Nina’s—chancing upon a random stranger, any stranger, from out of town to whisk me away from my suburban existence, even if just for a second. But Nina’s backseat hook-up isn’t some sweet romantic gesture: it’s humid and sweaty, and followed by an excruciatingly awkward aftermath. Exiting the car, she finds that she’s alone, and Suburban Wildlife crescendos into a manic search party—three friends looking for their fourth—followed by a final, cathartic reunion where any angst is momentarily forgotten.

*

The obvious truth of both The Virgin Suicides and Suburban Wildlife is that suburbia is limiting. But, more subtly, so are the fantasies we create to distance ourselves from the suburbs, so hyperbolised that their real-life counterparts seem automatically disappointing; so rooted in our desire for the future to arrive that the present seems uninhabitable by default.

Maybe this is what my parents knew all along—that there was little point pining for the future when it was already pre-determined by the psychic. That they should just accept their fates as it led them towards somewhere sleepier, sunnier, greener. Maybe that psychic knew all along they would end up moving from that first house in Carlingford to a street with a name so Happy Days—call it the Jane Doe of street names—that friends have laughed whenever I told them the address.

As I isolate with them now and indefinitely, I am certainly still adjusting to the rhythms of suburbia. But like a new-age practitioner, I am trying to stay present—to listen to the sound of bins going out, to find small joys in the clouds, to relish the little flashes of golden hour on my carpet again.