When you watch a Sofia Coppola movie, you go in expecting style. Sometimes, she’s going big, sometimes she’s going small, but it’s always going to be aesthetically pleasing. While I don’t think she’s ever matched the heights of Lost in Translation, any new film of hers is worth paying attention to. So, while on the surface Priscilla feels like a perfect fit for her sensibilities, the final product is almost too restrained. It’s Coppola light, in a way. Playing at the New York Film Festival, it’s definitely worth seeing, but its mostly gentle nature comes close to holding it back.
Priscilla is very different than last year’s Elvis. That’s a good thing to me, though it’s interesting that they’re both at such extremes. Coppola and Baz Luhrmann are not subtle filmmakers, so one of these things is not like the other. Luckily, the production design is suitably vivid, the lead performance is excellent, and any lingering issues are of the minor variety.
Quite simply, this is the story of when Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) met Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi). Both stationed in West Germany, her because of her father, he because of being drafted, they’re young and homesick. Now, she’s younger, very much a teenager, while he’s already a huge rockstar. Elvis is a superstar in public, but in private he’s someone else entirely. Taking a liking to her immediately when they meet at a party, there’s a mutual infactuation, one looked at ascance by her parents (Ari Cohen and Dagmara Dominczyk), even if they’re mostly powerless to do anything about it.
For Priscilla, Elvis is a crush come to life, but also a kindred spirit. What starts as a close friendship becomes a romance, one complicated by his leaving for America. Eventually, she joins him in Graceland, even if they have to keep their relationship a secret. We see their marriage as well, as the years pass, while both of them go through changes, some good, some bad. It’s no secret how this ends, but seeing it from her perspective is wholly new.
Cailee Spaeny is excellent in the title role. Jacob Elordi isn’t a bad Elvis, but he was far more impressive in Saltburn. Here, he feels a bit one-note, as if he never quite got a handle on how to add layers to the part. He’s hardly doing anything wrong, there just feels like less “there” there, if you will. Spaeny, on the other hand, evolves throughout the film, while her eyes observe so much. It’s very much a breakthrough sort of a role for her. They’re largely the two actors with anything noteworthy to do, but the supporting cast does include the aforementioned Ari Cohen and Dagmara Dominczyk, as well as Lynne Griffin and Tim Post, among others.
Sofia Coppola has a very gentle hand here, so much so that it almost feels like a surprise when Elvis shows darker sides to himself. That’s solid writing and direction, but she doesn’t ever really reconcile with the creepy nature of him essentially taking a child bride. It’s from Priscilla’s point of view, which partly explains it, but it still feels like a missed opportunity. That being said, it looks as good as any of her previous works, which is saying something.
Priscilla is a small work, much more a simple character study than anything else. It may be a bit above its pay grade playing as the Centerpiece Selection at NYFF, but even so, it’s still a largely compelling film, one that offers a showcase performance for Cailee Spaeny. If the movie isn’t too much more than that, that’s simply why it’s only a good flick, not a great one.