Slow-paced, and deeply personal, writer/director Sofia Coppola‘s latest project isn’t for everyone, but it suits me fine. This semi-autobiographical, intimate look at a young daughter’s relationship to her celebrity father opens with fifteen minutes (of the films 96 minute running time) without any dialogue. American audiences may well struggle with the very old school European style of storytelling, but if you have the patience Somewhere has much to share.
Stephen Dorff stars as Hollywood star Johnny Marco. Johnny’s life consists mainly of making movies, attending press conferences, living out of a hotel (the Chateau Marmont, where much of the film was shot), paying strippers (Kristina and Karissa Shannon) to perform in his home, hosting parties, sleeping with a variety of sexy strangers, and spending time with his pre-teen daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). Every detail of Johnny’s professional life is planned by an unseen voice over the phone (Amanda Anka) telling him when and where he’s needed, and his personal life consists mostly of waiting for his next set of instructions.
When his ex-wife (Lala Sloatman) announces she needs some time for herself, Johnny finds himself with his daughter for an extended period of time. One of the film’s nice twists is the realization that this isn’t a story about a kid spending a fun weekend with the wacky parent. It turns out Johnny, and not the mother (who has disappeared without a word to her daughter), is actually the stable one.
I’m not sure what it says about Francis Ford Coppola that Sofia chose Dorff for the role modeled after his father, but, as is usually the case with her unusual (but usually spot-on) casting choices, it turns out to be just right. In a role that mainly requires Dorff to inhabit a character not far removed from himself, he shines. Through a pair of scenes we learn Johnny went into acting because he could, without any former training, and he’s still a bit unsure of himself and his craft and how to handle himself at a press conference.
Elle Fanning is fantastic as a young girl entering her awkward stage and dealing with the abandonment of her mother and the unusual, but very loving, relationship with her father. There are several great scenes of the two together, some of them simple, some of the humorous, some of them sad, but all of them moving.
Somewhere is stripped down visually, shot in a documentary style. It’s almost as if we’re peaking back into memories of the filmmaker as a child, and, of course, in some ways we are. Although it’s very different in scope from the the lush Marie Antoinette (read that review), Sophia Coppola paints a beautiful look at a father’s relationship with his daughter.
Coppola never wastes words when images can tell the story. And for a movie that takes place in Los Angeles and Italy we’re denied the usual Hollywood trappings that come with such locales. What we see of Hollywood is mostly highways and streets (without the montages of various landmarks), and the sequence in Italy gives us only the lush hotel suite and the award ceremony that Johnny and Cleo attend.
You know you’re watching a good film when the small moments feel true. Somewhere is full of such moments. Chloe’s palpable disdain at having to share her father’s attention with one of his many lady friends over breakfast is as perfect an acting moment I’ve seen captured on-screen this year. And, like so much of the movie, it’s communicated completely visually. And the shot of them together on the couch after their whirlwind journey to Italy tells you everything you need to know about each character and their relationship.
Those who have grown up with divorced parents will also be able to relate to the tone as well as the odd mix of comfort and slight awkwardness of a child spending time with the parent they don’t live with. As with all aspects of the film, this is never explicitly stated, but easily seen and understood.
Although we get little of Hollywood, Copolla does give us a couple cameos of note. Michelle Monaghan shows up for a photo shoot as an actress who has worked with Johnny in the past, and Johnny runs into Benicio Del Toro in the hotel elevator. There is a also a short sequence where Johnny spends time getting made over in an effects warehouse for a new role which is about as far from the glitz of celebrity as you can get. With the exception of the suite in Italy, which is meant to be a special treat, it’s amazing how normal and un-Hollywood Coppola has managed to make a film centered around a celebrity.
Coppola also makes good use of music and sound to help sell the story. The soundtrack includes “Love Like a Sunset Part I” & “Part II” by Phoenix (who helped inspire the film and provides the score) as well as an eclectic mix from the Foo Fighters, The Police, Gwen Stefani, and KISS. The film’s score was designed to be minimalist and fit with the natural sounds of Los Angeles and the film’s loudest character – the revving engine of Johnny’s Ferrari.
Many may dismiss Somewhere for it’s simple tale, slow pacing, and return to themes Coppola has already touched on before in Lost in Translation. Yes, Dorff’s character is as lost as Bill Murray, but Johnny’s journey to understanding what it means to be good man and a good father is distinctly different. The set-up may be similar, but Johnny’s reasons for wanting to distance himself from the controlled and empty life which he leads is far different from an aging star coming to grips with the conditions of his marriage and career while overseas.
The more I watch and think about Somewhere, the more I enjoy and appreciate it as a film. It’s one of a handful of this year’s crop that I’ve gone back to more than once, and like a good wine it improves with age. The deftness which Sofia Coppola weaves this tale, relying far more on imagery and emotion rather than dialogue, makes Somewhere one of the year’s best films, and definitely worth a look.