Looking at Somewhere, it’s easy to talk about how it is probably personal on some level, with director Sofia Coppola recreating a portion of her experiences through Cleo (Elle Fanning), the daughter of a Hollywood star named Johnny (Stephen Dorff), and it is even easier to complain about how she focuses on the wealthy and privileged who, by all accounts, should have nothing to complain about. Still, both approaches to Somewhere take a lot away from the film, which is great on its own terms, and they also are complaints one can find elsewhere, often by the same critics who give a free pass to the likes of Jason Schwartzman, whose initial breakthrough likely stems from an equal degree of nepotism, and Noah Baumbach, a less impressive director whose subject matter is often another variation of rich-kid blues.
Somewhere is quiet, intimate, subtle, and low-key, built heavily upon repetition with variations and structured like a spiral, coming around very close to a point it just passed again and again until suddenly it ends far removed from where it began. It’s a portrait of boredom, a disavowal of glamour and materialism, and a lovely statement about familial love. Then the critics are right about one thing: It’s a film that nobody else could have made.
The opening shot, a wide look at a winding highway, sets the tone. The camera remains trained on nothing in particular out on the distance as cars intermittently zoom by. It’s a long, cyclical shot that suggests the very idea of highway hypnosis that the film is structured after. Johnny, like the driver on a desert highway, is going, going, making slight adjustments as the exits come and go, until suddenly, he’s somewhere new. The first 15 minutes of the film go by without a meaningful exchange of dialogue, and twice we see eerily synchronized strippers perform in the Chateau Marmont bedroom of an unenthused Johnny. Coppola, who has long been the best curator of indie and pop music for cinematic use (sorry, Tarantino fans), matches the Foo Fighters’ energetic but strangely tragic “My Hero” to the strippers’ routine, something that is indeed so routine to Johnny that it puts him to sleep. The energy of the song makes the lack of interest all the more peculiar, and the impression is that something is distinctly wrong. It’s easy to confirm: This is a man who goes around the house drinking a beer, playing video games, and doing nothing in particular.
The same thing happens again shortly thereafter, but this time the strippers are dressed like tennis players, and Johnny is a bit more interested. It’s a slight variation on the same events, but little is different. The third time’s the charm, however, as Johnny isn’t watching strippers but instead his daughter Cleo in the ice-skating rink. At this point, Cleo seems like a guest in Johnny’s life, but he begins watching that ice-skating routine with the same ennui that he showed the strippers. This time, though, Harris Savides’ camera follows Cleo on the ice where it used to stay statically trained on the strippers, and Johnny’s face grows from disinterest to enthusiasm in a subtle, heartbreaking way, as if Johnny realizes he has always been missing something special but isn’t quite smart enough to realize that he has realized it. So instead, when Cleo’s mom suddenly leaves and Johnny becomes the primary caretaker, he just continues about his life as normal and finds a way to fit his daughter in.
He isn’t a bad father. He takes her to Italy and lets her try every flavor of gelato, he takes care of her and plays games with her, and Johnny’s friend Sammy (Chris Pontius) is good around her, too. At the same time, she cooks for him and seems to exhibit a responsibility that he does not. Cleo makes her own list of items to take to camp, but Johnny has to be constantly reminded about appointments he has made—it’s no accident that he’s a “Johnny” and not a “Jonathan.”
But as he spends more and more time with Cleo, he learns more and more about what he was missing. All of Johnny’s work is uninteresting. He goes to a press-junket to give an unexciting interview and take photos with a star that has to pretend to like him, and even his trip to Italy appears to be all business, no pleasure. He can’t speak the language, and upon receiving some form of an award on Italian TV, he looks completely lost. When he goes into a studio to have special-effects make-up applied, a slow, hypnotic zoom on his latex-covered face serves as a visual metaphor for how blank a canvas truly is, and his subsequent transformation into an older man—a look that startles Johnny—is a worst-case scenario if he continues his life of empty glamour.
Johnny and Cleo partake in adventures that, while not lively on their own, are portrayed with more excitement than Johnny’s solo ventures, thanks to a denser sound-design and an enthusiastic performance from Fanning to go alongside Dorff’s quiet, revelatory one.
As cycles are broken, Somewhere breaks away from its hypnotic rhythm to an increasingly urgent one. Johnny’s shelters, such as the strippers and his Ferrari—another sign of false hedonism—are willfully thrown away and the destructive nature of celebrity ennui paves way for the joy of parenthood. Suddenly, Savides deceptively open compositions, highlighted by beautiful sets that nonetheless leave the viewer, like Johnny, with plenty to look at but little to gain, are dismissed for gliding exterior shots. In the stunning finale, Johnny rides out into the desert road that opened the film, away from the deceptive beauty of the Chateau Marmont, and the drone and buzz of Phoenix’s Love Like A Sunset is broken by a powerful burst of guitar. The song, like Johnny himself, fights through the pattern toward a revelation that sneaks up so quietly you don’t even know it’s there. Between the visual departure and perfect choice of music, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect ending to this intimate and life-affirming tale. Coppola may tell the story of the privileged, but her themes are universal.