Many people living in suburbia in the 1970s are witnesses to the deterioration of traditional values and morals. The good old days are gone; the 1970s is a new era. In particular, all the people mentioned in the novel -- amounting to more than 150 names -- become witnesses to, and commentators on, the tragedy that befalls the Lisbon family: At the outset a Catholic family within what is considered the norm, their lives change dramatically within one year when all of their five daughters commit suicide. (This is no surprise for the reader: Both the title and the very first sentence of the novel make it unmistakably clear what the story is all about.) When Cecilia Lisbon, the youngest daughter, one day kills herself out of the blue, the rest of the family cannot cope with what has happened and gradually become a group of recluses. Mr Lisbon, who teaches maths at the local high school, quits his job, and his four remaining daughters -- Bonnie, Therese, Lux, and Mary -- stop going to school. The Lisbons do not care for their house or garden anymore. From a safe distance, all the people in the neighbourhood keep watching the Lisbons, but no one can summon up the courage to actually intervene -- until it is too late. About a year after the first suicide, the other four girls kill themselves. Their parents separate and go and live somewhere else.
It is the girls' male peers who take particular interest in the goings-on: For some strange reason, they are sexually attracted by the Lisbon girls -- although they behave and dress awkwardly and although the boys do not see any real chance of taking them out, let alone have sex with them. But they hesitate too long: When they are just about to abduct the girls (or do whatever -- they do not have a sophisticated plan), the four remaining sisters kill themselves in a suicide pact within a few hours.
About twenty years later, some of the middle-aged men who, while they were adolescents, spent most of their waking hours spying on the girls, still have not been able to cope with their deaths. Like a nameless chorus, still in mourning, treasuring their fading recollections and contemplating the evidence they have gathered ("Exhibits Nos. 1-97") -- material things they carefully guard as if they were fetishes -- , but despite all their efforts they are still at a loss as far as the tragic events of their youth are concerned. The story is told by an anonymous first person narrator -- particularly interesting if one considers all the names mentioned in the novel -- who never uses the singular: The narrator always uses the first person plural, thus hiding behind a peer group which has long collapsed and dispersed. Nevertheless these middle-aged men keep in touch with each other, if only to be the "custodians of the girls' lives".
The narrator is rather upset about the fact that one exhibit has obviously been stolen (one photograph is missing). It remains unclear whom he is addressing and for what official purpose he and his fellow sufferers have collected all those memorabilia. Occasionally, he hints at the various directions his friends' lives have taken: Some are balding and/or have a beer belly, which seems to be one of the lesser evils; some -- including the narrator -- have been unfaithful to their wives; one of them, whose father was a teacher and the only Communist known to the boys, is into chakras; and one of them called Trip Fontaine is recovering from lifelong substance abuse.
The story unfolds like a puzzle or mosaic: From a distance of nearly 20 years, the final year of the Lisbon family is carefully and minutely pieced together and reconstructed. The narrator and his peers have gone to great lengths to track down the whereabouts of the people who might tell them something about the last year in the lives of the four remaining Lisbon girls; they have even travelled across the country to talk to some of them (including Mr and Mrs Lisbon themselves), just to get one more glimpse, one tiny bit of insight into what really went on. For example, the narrator sadly mentions the fact that Trip Fontaine, not the kind to brag about his success with women, has always been very reluctant to talk about his numerous sexual conquests ("four hundred and eighteen girls and women", including Lux Lisbon); or that one of the few people they were not able to track down was Lynn Kilsem, a psychological counsellor, maybe due to the fact that she used an assumed name back in the 1970s. The written documents are also now "Exhibits", e g psychologist Dr Hornicker's reports. Generally, the Lisbon family were being watched by people passing in the street and employees of businesses who delivered goods to their house; by their neighbours; by the old man living across the street; by the boys themselves from a treehouse and various attics. The boys even went through the Lisbons' rubbish.
The suicides are committed in different ways. One year before her sisters, Cecilia unsuccessfully tries to kill herself by slitting her wrists in the bath. But soon afterwards throws herself out of a second floor window and is impaled on the garden fence. Bonnie hangs herself in the rec room in the basement of the Lisbon house. Therese takes an overdose of sleeping pills and gin. Lux – the promiscuous one who at night has sex on the roof of their house -- poisons herself with carbon monoxide by sitting in her father's car in the garage, with the door locked. After putting her head in the oven, Mary survives for more than a month and then finally takes her life by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.
We never learn enough about Mr and Mrs Lisbon to be able to assess their strange ways of bringing up their daughters. However, at no point do the parents seem to be evil. Rather, they are frightened, afraid that something terrible might happen to their girls. It never becomes completely clear either to what extent their behaviour is caused by their religious fervour. As the girls are locked up by their parents inside their small world and are never allowed to have dates (as a rule not even chaperoned ones), the girls gather their knowledge from TV. At one point one of the neighbourhood boys remarks that they speak "with a Brooklyn accent, as though imitating a movie".
As far as Sofia Coppola's script and direction are concerned, Eugenides's novel is so elusive that there is no other feasible way of filming it. This is why with this film you get what you expect: short, incoherent scenes, no continuous dialogue, with voices frequently difficult to make out because the characters are always somewhere in the background -- never two people in close-up actually talking to each other. Many of the boys' encounters with one or more of the Lisbon sisters are accidental rather than carefully planned so no one ever takes their time to sit down and have some peace and quiet. The Lisbon girls always seem to be on the run: at the lockers at school to get to their next class, or in front of their house so as not to let their strict mother (Kathleen Turner) wait too long.
It was probably a wise decision to make the film short: A film like this might seem too long for many to watch for two hours. Just like the novel, there is a semi-documentary air about it, for example when the Dr Hornicker, the psychologist (Danny DeVito) reports his findings concerning Cecilia's unsuccessful suicide attempt, or when the adult, institutionalized Trip Fontaine reminisces about his relationship with Lux. Also, Sofia Coppola relies heavily on voice-over narration.
Scenes that were left out (not an exhaustive list):
On the other hand, the following scenes have been captured very well on film (again a random list):