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Most parent-child films end in a reiteration or reappraisal of easy, familiar morals: pay attention to your home, don’t get obsessed with your career, appreciate your partner, and listen to your children. Sometimes, these reminders come with a pseudo-righteous backbone of religion or familial legacy, but the roots of all of these feeling are in the so-called greatness, and unerring support available within in the confines, of the nuclear family unit. The fact that Sofia Coppola doesn’t buy into this rigid scheme in Somewhere is part of what makes her fourth feature so unique and unpredictable, but it certainly isn’t the sole reason Coppola’s depiction of a celebrity father-daughter diptych is so strangely moving and revealingly reflexive.
From the outset, the relationship between Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), isn’t ideal, considering Johnny spends most of his free time roaming around Los Angeles for one-night-stands, or spotting potential hook-ups at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, without her. His role as father is not exactly one he’s suited to, and Coppola litters her film with signals of a quickly sagging career in Hollywood, from Johnny’s slightly outdated, not-so-well-kept luxury car to the reaction a former co-star and lover (Michelle Monaghan) gives him during a publicity photo shoot. He’s in a transitional period, for lack of a better phrase, and Somewhere seems to be a reaction to Coppola’s own transitional feelings following the dip in popularity she suffered between Lost in Translation and the woefully undervalued Marie Antoinette.
In other words, Coppola is Johnny, someone who still lives comfortably off of the lifestyle the silver screed affords but isn’t the white-hot would-be savior of Hollywood. And yet she’s also Cleo, who comes to stay with her dad at the Marmont following her mother’s vaguely discussed breakdown, and whose relationship with Johnny is a loose reflection of her childhood as the daughter of arguably the most sainted and influential director of the 1970s. Despite the time they spend apart, their relationship is quiet, good-humored, and loving, and Coppola goes to lengths to visually underline how empty, blank, and shallow the benefits of luxury are ultimately. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is Dorff’s hunk-star getting a cast made of his face for make-up, wigs, and masks, and Coppola slowly pans in on his face of sloppy, bulbous white mass, the whistling of his breathing being the only prominent sound heard. Like the mask, fame and money haven’t made Johnny a different person, just have allotted him a new, more stylish veneer which is slowly starting to disintegrate.
Even their trip to Italy feels less like a visit to connect with the country and its people and more like an extravagant tour of Italy’s most expensive spaces and events; there’s also the arguable reasoning that Johnny attended to hook up with a former flame. Like Coppola, Johnny understands the importance of style and a cultivated image of one’s self but he doesn’t totally understand the tinny nature of such things, at least not until the film’s final moments. Fanning proves essential in decoding and cutting through Dorff’s character’s self-obsession, able to call out his pettiness and promiscuity with the upward flick of an eyebrow or a narrowed gaze thrown his way. And yet even she becomes aware of her own image when she is confronted with her father and one of his partners joining her for breakfast, at once silently scrutinizing her father and sizing up the woman he’s with, taking note of how she’s made herself up. Coppola mirrors this by focusing her camera on big symbols and stylistic accents, from the ludicrously opulent hotel suite Johnny and Cleo stay at in Italy to the myriad pleasures to be found in and around the Chateau Marmont.
Despite this frayed, complex relationship, the writer-director is perfectly attuned to the intimate connection between Johnny and Cleo. Whether playing video games at the Marmont with friends or sharing some late-night desserts at the hotel in Italy, Fanning and Dorff convey an unspoken understanding and love between parent and child, but Somewhere never goes as far as to suggest there’s an easy fix for the problems that Cleo holds back on until the ending. The intimacy they enjoy doesn’t excuse the fact that there’s something troubled and ajar in their relationship; not for nothing is Cleo introduced by writing her name on Johnny’s cast for a broken arm, the first of many symbols Coppola utilizes. The very title of Somewhere invokes deep uncertainty (or, arguably, indifference), and as Johnny finally stop at the end of the movie, taking a break from cruising around randomly, the great revelation seems to be that Johnny needs to find a distinct place to be rather than just terminally wandering, whether its ultimately with his daughter or not.
Somewhere is currently available for streaming on Netflix.