Young women trapped in gilded cages: that’s the theme that comes to mind when thinking about the films of Sofia Coppola, so readily that her Wikipedia page uses the phrase almost verbatim. The Virgin Suicides starred five suburban sisters under ever-tightening parental lockdown. Lost in Translation found a rock photographer’s wife free yet adrift in a swank Tokyo hotel. Marie Antoinette made a subject of, well, Marie Antoinette, and Somewhere left its eleven-year-old daughter of a disaffected movie star with no choice but turn up on on her dad’s Chateau Marmont doorstep. Even now, the filmmaker completes work on The Bling Ring, whose titular clutch of teenagers find themselves driven to burgle the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and other such luminaries, surely out of sheer ennui. But the most vicious expression of the signature Sofia Coppola setup came in her very first film, the 1998 short Lick the Star.
Set amid the aristocratic court-level intrigue of a middle-class junior high school, the story traces the breakdown of a conspiracy by the girls, led by seventh-grade queen bee Chloe, to gradually poison the boys with doses of arsenic. In what we by now will have come to think of as a Coppolan turn, Chloe gets the idea from V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic, copies of which she passes around to the underlings she pressures into helping her execute the plan. Alas, what goes for the best-laid plans of mice and men goes also for those of spiteful thirteen-year-old girls. Shot on black-and-white 16-millimeter film, Lick the Star would at first seem to fit right in, aesthetically, with the other quick-and-dirty debuts of the 1990s’ American indie boom, but a series of striking stylistic touches soon set it apart. More evidence for Coppola’s defenders, who argue against the detractors who accuse her of having gotten by on nepotism. Then again, without the right connections, could she have cast Peter Bogdanovich as the principal?