‘Priscilla’ Review

God bless Sofia Coppola. Perhaps no director working today has a keener sense for finding a unique, exciting angle on a story – no matter how repetitively told. In theory, there was no need for Priscilla to be made: Elvis came out last year and made $300 million and almost won Austin Butler an Oscar. While it certainly didn’t provide a complete picture of Priscilla and Elvis’ complicated love story, we as an audience collectively decided that we understood the film to be an unfinished look at an iconic figure. Yet as she has done so many times before, Coppola finds the psychological angle necessary to tell Priscilla’s story, and give the young girl often sidelined as the King’s beehive hairdo Queen the character study she so richly deserved.

In 1959, 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) found herself bored and alone in Germany, where her father (Ari Cohen) is stationed as a captain in the U.S. Air Force. Unable to connect with the kids her own age, Priscilla’s life changes when she finds herself at a party hosted by none other than Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), stationed overseas during his military service. Despite his being a full decade older than her, the two form a connection, and Priscilla finds an escape from her mundane life through the courting of the biggest star on the planet. And so begins the complicated story of Priscilla and Elvis, one filled with passion, drug abuse, anger issues, blow-up fights, and the struggle to control one’s own life.

There is perhaps no director working today with a greater grasp on what it’s like to be a teenage girl than Sofia Coppola, nor is there a director more capable of capturing that feeling and experience on film. Every detail on display allows us to soak in the world Priscilla inhabits – and why everything changed when she met Elvis. From the jump, we feel, through subtle looks, lingering shots, even the very atmosphere, Priscilla’s dissociation with kids her own age, the constant uncomfortable attention she gets from older men, and her feelings of isolation. She is a stranger in a strange land, unable to make new friends. So it stands to reason that she is open to Elvis’ attraction…or grooming, depending on how you read it.

Coppola’s script and eye for detail viscerally put us inside the mind of a teenage girl suddenly given the attention and affection of the sexiest man alive. It’s a masterful character study, utilizing every facet of atmosphere to create this world, from Priscilla’s first entry into the world of screaming fans, to the juxtapositions of the magic of love and the harshness of reality. When Elvis kisses Priscilla for the first time and whisks her away, it is perfect – “Crimson and Clover” plays on the soundtrack, the camera swoons, the world seems brighter. Only afterwards do we realize that Priscilla is simply trading the isolation of Germany for a pink-walled prison; one amplified by Elvis’ controlling and confusing habit of getting her all riled up but refusing to consummate until their wedding.

Coppola’s writing – not to mention Spaeny’s performance – explore what these effects would have on a young girl. After all, the benefits of this new world are so intoxicating, who wouldn’t be willing to sell out a few of their core values? Why not take a few of Elvis’ “magic pills,” or put up with his idiot fratty friends, or use promises of “Elvis parties” to convince other school girls to let you cheat on a test? In fact, in the same way Coppola so expertly criticized vapid popular girl culture in Marie Antoinette (and, I suppose, the cult classic Bling Ring), here it almost seems as if Coppola is exploring the modern-day phenomenon of the “Pick Me” – a girl whose entire personality is based on her need for validation from the men in her life. It’s a fascinating angle, and it breathes life into every facet of the filmmaking.

Of course, as brilliant as Coppola’s take on Priscilla may be, her nuanced take on The King of Rock n’ Roll is just as insightful. Perhaps it is because she grew up around this kind of man during her girlhood days in Hollywood, but there is a deep understanding here of a man thrust into superstardom at a young age and never had to mature. Neither a gonzo appraisal or a searing condemnation, Priscilla views its leading man as a grown man forever trapped as a scared 16-year-old due to the unbearable burden of fame. Elvis’ interest in the underage Priscilla remains an elusive mystery, with evidence provided for several interpretations. He seemingly views her, on a subconscious level, as a peer, yet clearly knows enough to try to protect her “innocence.” Is this his way of finding a partner he can control, an attempt to recapture his own lost innocence, or something more complicated? There are no easy answers to be found.

Elordi manages to carefully toe the line in his performance as Elvis, crafting a character who is equally empathetic and egomaniacal. It is easy to pity the fearful young man clearly crumbling under the pressure of star power and a demanding father and manager. Yet as sympathetic as his tragic situation might be, it never excuses his controlling, adolescent, and occasionally violent reactions when he loses control to his fans, his family, and a certain unseen captor. In fact, one of Elvis’ (and indeed, the film’s) defining moments comes later in the film. After berating Priscilla for finding his newfound interest in philosophy “boring,” Elvis receives a call from the Colonel, who chastises him for his hobby and immediately leading to Elvis burning all his new books. In this simple scene, Coppola manages to show Elvis both as instigator and victim, and it demonstrates the level of intelligence that went into the telling of this story.

For almost its entire runtime, Coppola’s film never missteps. Every shot is so genius, so precise, so perfect, it seems impossible it could ever stumble. Sadly, this brilliance makes the film’s shaggier third act all the more noticeable. As Elvis becomes more erratic and Priscilla finds herself more and more isolated from her spouse, the film loses the taut, psychological rhythm it had so carefully developed. Everything begins to unravel – the editing gets sloppier, the characters become indecipherable, and outside of a few great moments (including one showing Elvis getting fatter, slower, and strung out set to the funk version of “2001”), it just lacks the magic of the film’s first hour. Still, considering how strong the final minutes become (including an incredible close-up and a musical choice so on-the-nose you’d laugh if you weren’t openly weeping), it’s hard to nitpick too harshly.

Most of this review has been spent praising Coppola’s writing and directing, for good reason. Yet none of it would amount to much without the two talented stars she’s placed at the center. Spaeny in particular is sublime. She perfectly embodies this girl, from 14 to 24, and never misses with a single look, motion, or line delivery. Elordi, meanwhile, looks and acts nothing like Elvis. However, thanks to his pure charisma as a performer, it hardly matters for the narrative. Not to mention the fact his 6’5” frame amplifies the age difference more than any camera trick ever could. The film mostly serves as a two-hander between its leads, but other standouts include the great Dagmara Domińczyk as Priscilla’s skeptical mother, Lynne Griffin as Elvis’ loving grandmother, and Tim Post as Elvis’ controlling father.

Priscilla is a master class in character study. It takes a world that seems foreign and makes it universal through the eyes of its protagonist. It fully encapsulates the inner workings of its teenage protagonist – her thoughts, her emotions, her experiences, all of it. It shows us fame, love, dissatisfaction, adolescence, and growth all blended together into one massive, heartbreaking treatise. There are few auteurs as gifted as Coppola working today. And while it’d be wrong to call this her “best” work, it certainly feels like a wholly-realized continuation of all the themes that make her one of the best directors working today.

A-

Priscilla will premiere on VOD December 15th; it is now playing in theaters nationwide

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