It’s true that she is a person of fewer words than other people.
—Roman Coppola, 16 December 2010
A few minutes into Somewhere, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) breaks his wrist. It’s a silly accident, the result of falling down a stairway at the Chateau Marmont. He’s drunk or high or careless or all of the above, and as he pitches forward, out of frame, his fellow partiers watch, bemused. Their mouths drop open, they giggle a little. One comments, “Fuck!”
It’s a good joke, small and not precisely funny. Johnny’s an action star in the movies, apparently a pretty successful one, and here he goes, tumbling out of his own life, as it’s imagined in a film that’s about as antithetical to his line of work as might be imagined. His time-killing is similarly unsynched: lying back on his bed, Johnny is entertained by pair of blond dancers in nurses’ getups. As the girls awkwardly mirror each other’s moves, they maintain something like eye contact with the client; he returns their fake smiles with his own, their boombox blaring the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero.” When he falls asleep, his snoring soft from off-screen, the dancers quietly fold up their poles into matching pink gym bags and head out, the camera low and unmoving as their legs pass out of view.
If such low-key observation is familiar from Sofia Coppola’s previous films, in Somewhere it finds a kind of perfect pitch. Johnny appears for long minutes not speaking. He stands on his balcony, he sits on his couch, he smokes a cigarette and for the most part, the camera keeps its distance. When he’s called to the special effects studio one morning to have a mold made of his face, he sits patiently—in his tastefully faded jeans and vintage Black Flag t-shirt—as the artists apply plaster, quickly and efficiently, then leave him to set. Now the camera moves, slowly, slowly pushing in as he breathes. The cast is lumpy, a little drippy looking, the nose-holes strangely transfixing. And then the scene is over.
In the next, he’s wearing his next movie’s old-man mask, wrinkled and bald, his look into the mirror obscured by the makeup but also unnerving. This is and isn’t him, maybe a glimpse of his future and maybe not. It’s not plainly a moment of recognition, but only possibly; but if Johnny’s not quick to see himself, if he’s resistant, the film invites you to imagine what he might see if he was paying attention. But it doesn’t insist. Such indirection makes Somewhere remarkable, a haunting evocation of a story you know already. Johnny’s lost, yes, and eventually he’ll see that, but that’s not what’s at stake here.
Instead, the movie shows transformations in how he sees, premised on how he’s seen. That is, how he’s seen by his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). She appears first in a close frame, as a hand and blond hair, signing her name to his cast—with a heart. He’s sleeping, again. The hotel maid’s vacuum cleaner whirs in the hallway and then Johnny wakes to see Cleo and her mom, Layla (Lala Sloatman), watching them from the bedroom doorway. “What happened to you?” she wonders. He explains it as a stunt gone wrong: “I do all my own stunts, you know.” The parents smile at one another, weary and unbelieving but willing to get along. He takes Cleo to ice skating practice, where he remains focused on his BlackBerry, until he takes a moment to watch her skate, carefully, her turns small and her arms long. Driving her home, he asks, “When did you learn to skate?” She explains, “I’ve been going for three years.”
Scant like all the dialogue in Somewhere, this exchange is also utterly revealing. Johnny has spent years not focusing. At the same time, Cleo is a strikingly poised and attentive kid: when her mom takes off unexpectedly, she hangs with her dad, playing Guitar Hero with him and his scruffy buddy Sammy (Chris Pontius), making them Eggs Benedict for breakfast, explaining Twilight (“If she gets too close to him, he won’t be able to help himself”), tagging along on a trip to Milan.
She’s impressed by the majesty of their suite, which has a pool (she does laps and handstands, which he rates with numbers). Late at night when they’re jet-lagged and not sleeping, he orders an assortment of gelatos they appreciate together. Their bed is wide and luxurious, their faces content. Cleo’s not surprised when she shares breakfast the next morning with an Italian lady who chatters about the crush she had on a boy when she was 11. Cleo casts her dad a look across the table and for an instant, he sees himself from another perspective.
If Johnny can’t sustain this change, he is reminded of it a few more times. When he accepts an award later that night, Cleo watches him from the audience, her party dress pristine and her smile genuine, as the camera tilts up at him on stage, awkwardly reciting his couple of Italian words and then surrounded by gyrating girls in glittery bikinis. He glances about uncomfortably, lost again. A few moments later, he suddenly notices Cleo’s crying as he’s driving. She’s worried, she tells him, that her mother’s disappeared and that he’s “always gone.” Resituated and struck, Johnny hugs his daughter and tells her not to worry. If he’s not quite the adult, yet, he’s not quite the perennially childish movie star either. He can’t find words to describe his sorrow: “Sorry I haven’t been around,” he whimpers as Cleo, half-smiling bravely, waves from her cab. His chopper roars behind him so she can’t begin to hear him.
Looking at him as if from Cleo’s view, you see what Somewhere means. It’s not about Johnny’s self-recognition or even about Cleo’s composure. It’s a movie about seeing from unexpected perspectives, about putting the camera in new places, using low levels, stationary frames, and serene long takes. Detailed and lovely, patient and observant, the look isn’t just how a girl might see, though it is that. It’s how most movies don’t take the time to see.