Somewhere (Focus Features, R)

What does happen in Somewhere is presented with such subtlety that it’s easy to miss but with such honesty that it feels entirely natural.




Somewhere is one of those films that has split critics ( scores range from 100 to 12) and audiences right down the middle. And you know what? They’re both right, because it all depends on what you expect when you go to see a film.

Virtually nothing happens in Somewhere. In fact, people barely talk to one another. We learn very little of the characters’ back stories because the film is bereft of the sort of verbal exposition viewers have come to expect from mainstream movies. Instead it’s always in the moment; in fact, Somewhere is composed of a series of moments and allows you to make the connections between them. So if you’re looking for a movie that adheres to the familiar conventions of Hollywood storytelling, you should probably choose something else to watch.

On the other hand, what does happen in Somewhere is presented with such subtlety that it’s easy to miss but with such honesty that it feels entirely natural. If you have the patience to give yourself over to the measured pace of this film and pay attention to the details it sets before you, it delivers with an impact far beyond what a conventional treatment of the same material could hope to achieve. If you find yourself in this camp you’ll be in agreement with the jury at the Venice Film Festival, which awarded Somewhere the Golden Lion (Best Picture) this year.

Somewhere is basically a two-hander with lots of secondary characters who are there to facilitate the main story—that of a father and daughter who come to appreciate each other. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a movie star living in the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood and drifting through life like one of the androgynous teenagers in a Gus Van Sant film, barely present as he spends much of his time in the aimless pursuit of what should bring him pleasure. Johnny smokes, drinks, parties, hires twin pole dancers to entertain him in his room (twice—and in both cases the general tenor of the scene is more pathetic than sexy) and does publicity for his latest film, but he’s never really there.

Then one day Johnny awakens to find his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s little sister) autographing his cast (he broke his arm falling down the stairs while drunk, although he tell Cleo’s mother it’s from “doing my own stunts”). It’s his day to take care of her, a fact that has gotten lost in his jumbled brain, and soon they’re off to the ice rink for Cleo’s skating lesson. At first Johnny, like many parents, is more interested in playing with his phone than in paying attention to Cleo, but when he looks up he has a rare moment of awareness; that’s his daughter out there on the ice and, for a kid, she’s not half bad. In fact she’s been taking lessons for three years, one among the many facts about Cleo’s life that Johnny has been too out of it to notice.

A bit later Cleo’s mom announces she’s in need of a break, and now it’s Johnny’s turn to be the custodial parent. Taking responsibility for another person, probably for the first time in his life, brings him to the understanding that it’s better to engage with the world than to sleepwalk through it. You’ve heard that one before, but what’s special is the way director Sofia Coppola (who also wrote the script) allows us to observe it happening on screen rather than forcing this conclusion on us. This is a film that lives or dies on the strength of its principal actors, and fortunately both deliver. Dorff nails the role of the handsome but disaffected Johnny, while Fanning is a revelation as his precocious daughter who understands the trappings of privilege as well as does her dad, but knows that they’re not real.

Long takes are a salient feature of Somewhere, starting with the opening scene of Johnny driving aimless circles in the desert, summarizing his mental state while also clueing the audience in to the fact that this won’t be your typical plot-driven film. Somewhere is also a film of telling details—the box Johnny stands on for his publicity photos, the bottle of Propecia by his sink, the slight improvements in his scruffy look over the course of the film—that reward  viewers willing to immerse themselves in the experience. | Sarah Boslaugh

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