Viewers averse to obvious visual metaphors involving cars should probably skip the first (and maybe the last) scene of Sofia Coppola’s fourth feature, Somewhere. The film opens with protagonist Stephen Dorff driving a Ferrari around in circles for long minutes shortly before we see him living the directionless, hard-partying life of a between-projects movie star at the Chateau Marmont. The scenes mean much the same thing, but at least in the car, Dorff’s character can pretend he’s in control. With little but a few hours of movie promotion on the agenda, he drinks, pops pills, smokes cigarette after cigarette, and has listless sex with whoever floats his way. Or not: In an early scene, a pair of pole dancers perform a private routine in his room to a blaring Foo Fighters song as Dorff nods off. He’s wearing an approving smile, but unable—or just too bored—to do anything about it.
Coppola shoots the scene like she shoots the movie: lingering over the image of the women performing their stiffly choreographed tease, and letting Harris Savides’ grainy cinematography and the sound of flesh squeaking on metal remove any hint of glamour. Then she shows the women packing up their poles and leaving. From his room, Dorff can order up pretty much anything he wants, but he’s reached the limits of what his imagination can summon up, and possibly what his body can handle. And in the end, nobody sticks around.
Enter Dorff’s daughter, cheerily played by Elle Fanning. Usually just around on weekends, she’s dumped in his care when her mother takes off for undisclosed reasons for an indeterminate time. Suddenly, responsibilities like shopping for summer camp enter the picture, and a whirlwind trip to Italy to promote his latest, none-too-promising-looking movie turns from a transplanted version of his usual debauch to a family vacation for two.
That sounds cloying on the page, but in Coppola’s hands, it’s anything but. Fanning remains almost relentlessly upbeat, but her performance doesn’t hide the sadness beneath it all, and as the film moves forward, it becomes clear how much she’s had to invent herself. She’s turned out great, but probably only through sheer force of will. Her presence has an effect on Dorff, but it often seems more unnerving than life-changing. Looking up from his cell phone, he’s enthralled by an ice-skating lesson, but wonders why he never cared before, while Coppola’s camera captures each uncomfortable realization of how much he’s missed.
Coppola’s films are no stranger to this sort of world; each one has studied the psychic toll of isolation and privilege. Somewhere has strong echoes of Lost In Translation in particular, from the luxury hotels to an encounter with another country’s bizarre television, but the style—all understatement and studied long takes—breaks rewardingly with what she’s done before. It’s all so uneasily compelling and quietly moving, it might be too much to ask her to sustain it through the conclusion, which gives Dorff a Charlie-Sheen-breaking-down-in-Wall-Street moment before the symbolic Ferrari shows up again.