Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere tells the fragile story of successful actor and estranged father Johnny Marco’s (Stephen Dorff) fatefully bonding with his eleven-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) at the Chateau Marmont, in Milan for an awards show and in Vegas for an impromptu vacation. Somewhere, Coppola’s fourth feature, is a quiet, aloof movie and yet is at no risk of being underrated. It won the Golden Lion, Best Picture, at the Venice International Film Festival in early September and was welcomed stateside in late December by a tellingly polarized mix of thoughtful, enthusiastic reviews and predictable chastisements for depicting the spiritual hardships of the over-privileged.
Somewhere opens with an extended uniform shot of Johnny Marco alone in the desert, circling a track in his black Ferrari again and again, building a malaise that the audience rides out intimately and numbly with him through scenes of his hard partying at the Chateau, until the introduction of Cleo. It might be easy to peg this film a superbly shot picture of a mature preteen mothering her spoiled, immature Hollywood father. Johnny Marco, however, needs no mothering and is not necessarily immature. It is true that he betrays his lower tastes in certain hilarious scenes—scenes that satirically mirror the tacky ways and means of Hollywood—and he lives more by instinct than agenda. Nonetheless, he is actually a good father, and the ingrained stalwart whimsy, the grown-up childishness which blooms in him naturally in the presence of his precocious, suddenly more or less motherless daughter, helps him become a better one.
Cleo’s self-possession and self-confidence are consistently believable and increasingly impressive as it becomes clearer that her mother may be gone for a very long time, if not, as she fears, for good. There is also something artistic in Cleo’s devoted observation of her father’s life, suggesting the level of detached watchfulness with which young Sofia Coppola went along with her own father, Francis Ford Coppola (an executive producer on all four of her films, for what it’s worth), to Milan for the same over-the-top Italian awards show to which Cleo accompanies Johnny. Referring to the Milan hotel where they shot the film, Sofia Coppola said to Anne Thompson of Indiewire, “We stayed there, we went to the Telegatto awards; that’s how I know about that, and this hotel suite with a swimming pool, which was something I’d never seen before…we stayed in that actual room one time, my whole family, my mom, my brother.”
Elle Fanning carries Cleo beautifully. From ice-staking for her dad to Gwen Stefani’s “Cool” in one of their first scenes together to ad libbing with Chris Pontius of the Jack-Ass gang, who plays an old friend of Johnny Marco’s, in their suite at the Chateau, Cleo’s every moment is a natural wonder. “It wasn’t even like filming a movie. It was like going to the Chateau. The Chateau became our home,” Elle Fanning told Interview Magazine. Fanning’s unobtrusive playfulness and quick onscreen grace keep her character far from seeming obnoxiously advanced for her age. In fact, every item in Somewhere that might otherwise border on the obnoxious well rights itself. For one, it is clear that Cleo’s mother disappears catalytically because she is lost in her own self-centered Hollywood drama and not at all intentionally because her ex-husband “needs to grow.” Also, Johnny’s debauchery is offset by such silence and sensitivity that it comes across not as critical waywardness but as yet another factor contributing to and resulting from the stagnant state of his existence. While he is often unkempt enough to remind anyone with “I’m Still Here” unfortunately still fresh in their brain of a “rock-bottom” Joaquin Phoenix, the awkward association is remedied by Johnny’s professional competence and the health of his outward life. (While playing Guitar Hero with Cleo, Johnny even jokes “Another actor’s failed transition into music,” perhaps in reference to J.P.) His livelihood as an actor thrives on the surface, where he is simultaneously promoting one finished movie (shooting photos for promotional posters, giving press conferences and accepting awards) and working on another (we see him have a plaster cast made of his head by a special effects crew). Meanwhile, he languishes privately underneath.
Somewhere begins and ends with similar scenes of squalid, lonely tension. After Johnny and Cleo have left their “Mom’s-really-gone-for-a-while-I-guess-let’s-go-to-Vegas” vacation in a helicopter so Cleo could catch her ride to summer camp, Johnny returns alone to the Chateau and breaks down. “I’m not even a person,” Johnny, having realized how little time he has devoted to getting know his daughter, the only real thing in his life, laments on the phone to his ex-wife. She responds, damningly distant, “Why don’t you try volunteering or something?” Of course, he is a person. Somewhere in Johnny Marco is a person who at least once had a wife and now has a daughter who needs him in her life. In the last scene, we see Johnny where we first saw him: alone in the desert. The only difference is that now he is walking down the road, away from the Ferrari, headed who knows where…