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The Human Focus in Sofia Coppola Movies

By David Young · November 6, 2023

The Human Focus in Sofia Coppola Movies

Sofia Coppola movies range in genres, from melodrama to rom-com to tragedy, but they all showcase her ability to implement the same ideas visually and narratively: ideas like loneliness, the difficulties of youth and romance, and innately human needs. Sofia Coppola movies often put character first and plot second — the focus is on people and their feelings, what they’re going through instead of what they do.

Whether it’s positive, negative, or somewhere in between, those experiences give Coppola’s films a fantastic edge when connecting with audiences to show them the deeply human side of any conflict.  

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The Virgin Suicides

A major focus on youth and its pitfalls highlights many Sofia Coppola movies. In one of her first writer-director pursuits, she showcases this through the lens of religiously guarded lives in a 1970s Catholic home of teenage girls in The Virgin Suicides.

The Lisbon sisters, feeling stifled due to this overprotective attitude from their parents, attract the attention of neighborhood boys. Soon, a suicide attempt by the youngest sister gives the Lisbons a reason to try loosening the reins a bit — and it’s this tug of war and the resulting devastation that speaks volumes to audiences as they watch the first daughter impale herself, the next being abandoned, and the rest begin to end their own suffering in an unforgiving portrayal of the sisters’ choice to permanently change things in the way they saw fit.

Sofia Coppola’s demonstration of intimate story detail and challenging imagery delivers a poignant message about the spikes of teenage emotion that can lead to despair, and in this case, death.

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Lost in Translation

The idea of loneliness can only be fully understood when it stands in opposition to togetherness. That’s what we see in Lost in Translation, where the two main characters, Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), share a connection punctuated by more than just words. Their company with each other, as they each process their own feelings and their own predicaments, leads to an unexpected intimacy. The two combat the feeling of being “trapped” from different angles as they revel in the kindred bond they have: Bob’s career and Charlotte’s upcoming nuptials have them each in a perceived stranglehold that only their connection seems to relax by any measurable amount.

One of the most recognizable traits of Coppola’s films is her eagerness to work independently of dialogue; in many cases, it’s the image that we absorb in her stories to gather the message she’s sharing. Nowhere is this truer than at the end of Lost in Translation, when Bob shares a whispered moment with Charlotte before they part with a kiss.

Tons of framing choices and work with actors present the two leads as growing closer, but it’s this last moment — without relying on spoken words — that the audience is reassured the two have something special, something that can’t be disturbed by outside experience. That palpable connection is the goal of the whole movie, and again, it can’t stand out without being shown against the backdrop of alienated people in a land they don’t know.

Read More: 10 of the Best Scripts Written by Women

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Some Sofia Coppola films demonstrate more than others a keen emphasis on human experience over an event-based plot. Somewhere is one such film of hers, focusing chiefly on a divorced actor whose existence before and after his daughter visits him undergoes a significant change.

The film is about his state of being and the conditions of his general life: drug-addled, lonely, and filled with casual encounters. Only once he connects with his daughter does he feel a sense of regret and desire to end his bacchanalia — and although he doesn’t receive closure with his ex, he finds something like that with himself as he walks away from certain symbols of status.

As a character study more than a story, Somewhere perfectly showcases the ability of Coppola to aim for the experience of a movie and to deliver it for the audience, rife with emotion.

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Bling Ring

This ensemble crime film focuses on teens who prey on the rich and famous by stealing their belongings and breaking into their homes. This film’s commentary on behaviors like celebrity obsession and greed makes it a poignant story about modern youth.

Sofia Coppola’s vision for this adaptation of the Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” gave audiences a way to see how steep the cost of such obsessions can become a source of woe, jail time, and even betrayal. It’s easy to visualize the ups and downs of teenage life without crimes being committed — but add a fame-hungry burglary ring into the mix and you’ve got yourself a complex picture and a clear idea of how difficult young lives can become.

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The Beguiled

Based on the 1960s Thomas Cullinan novel of the same name, The Beguiled is Sofia Coppola’s largest departure from the typical modernity of her storytelling. While even The Virgin Suicides is a frame story looking back on the past, this Southern gothic period piece showcases the Civil War period in America at an all-girls school. Within it, a wounded Union deserter becomes a person of interest in the lives of the students and faculty alike at this school, with his presence slowly adding contentment, sexual tension, and violent betrayals into the mix.

While the story is rife with action between all the people in the school and their newfound plaything, it’s clear that Coppola’s focus is on the dastardly thriller environment created by this soldier’s presence. With jealousy, fear, and aggression mounting each day, the experience created for him at this school is uniquely positioned to become a Coppola production well worth its place in her collected works.

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On the Rocks

The narrative turns of this dramedy are nothing short of entertaining and engaging. Watching Laura (Rashida Jones) mount in suspicion against her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) again and again, the audience learns to exercise distrust and caution in equal measure thanks to Laura’s father, Felix (Bill Murray), whose regular lifestyle includes deceit and charming the ladies.

It’s only after a harrowing journey with this weight on her shoulders that Laura learns not everything is as it seems — and that she needs to have it out with her father, whose actions have created insecurities that she carries with her to this day.

As a story about forgiveness and the effort that trust requires, On the Rocks is a Sofia Coppola film through and through, giving audiences a taste of Laura’s alienated state in her marriage, a clearer idea of what it’s like to grow up amid distrust, and how a person can ultimately get through that and come out the other side.

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Humans are the most interesting part of any story. Whether it’s a crime comedy or a psychological thriller, people are at the center of what happens, and it’s up to them to make the audience feel something. Thanks to Sofia Coppola’s clear direction, keen vision, and storytelling prowess, she helps the people in her stories do exactly that.

Sofia Coppola films center on the experience of the people in them; she doesn’t rely on the string of events that happen, but on the reality of a person’s situation.

So, whether you’re looking for a story with a distinct mood and theme, or you’re trying to write your own deeply human tale, have a look at Coppola’s corpus of works! You’ll find what you’re looking for either way.

Read More: Mysteries of Life: 6 Screenwriting Lessons from Sofia Coppola, Paul Schrader and A24

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