Sibling Sisterhood on Screen: Part 1

Sibling Sisterhood on Screen: The Virgin Suicides, Gas Food Lodging

Sibling Sisterhood on Screen: Part 1

Sibling sisterhood is a complex affair. When push comes to shove the sister bond can generate fierce protectiveness, closest confidences and our sister – younger, older, or the middlers – can be our most formative female role model. Sisters can of course also be a bloody nightmare!

Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven and co-written by Alice Winocour, the brilliant Turkish drama MUSTANG depicts five spirited sisters fighting the physical and psychological confines of their patriarchal home. It’s beguiling and sometimes harrowing, but what shines through is the siblings’ tenderness and their unbreakable bond.

The film is released in UK cinemas on Friday 13 May by Curzon Artificial Eye. To celebrate, BEV is running a series of reflections looking at other great portrayals of sibling sisterhood on screen…

The Virgin Suicides

USA 1999, Dir Sofia Coppola
By Isabel Moir (Programmer, Overnight Film Festival)

“No one could understand how Mrs Lisbon and Mr Lisbon, our math teacher, could produce such beautiful creatures.”

I remember so clearly seeing this film for the first time. I rented it from Blockbuster when it first came out, as a Kirsten Dunst film was always a hit at girls’ sleepover parties. I was captivated by this dreamy female world created by Sofia Coppola, which soon led me to purchase the VHS and soundtrack, read the book by Jeffrey Eugenides, print out the film poster to stick on my wall and even purchase a dress like the one that Lux Lisbon wore to “the first and only party of their short lives”.  I was hooked.

Like the young boys in the film I was mesmerised by the Lisbon sisters, but it went beyond just their beauty and flowing long hair.  They are portrayed as being unattainable, always kept at a distance from the audience and characters in the film. We hardly ever witness conversations between the girls; our knowledge about them is learned through gossip by the observant and nosey characters outside of the girls’ world.

At one point the young boys get their hands on Cecilia’s diary, where the boys gain insight in to the lives of these magical beings and try desperately to analyse Cecilia through her writing: “What we have here is a dreamer. Someone completely out of touch with reality.” In contrast, the girls are controlled by their strict conservative parents who are afraid of their burgeoning female sexuality and consequently do not allow them to breathe or express themselves.

Although we never get to really know the Lisbon sisters, they never appear as one dimensional characters but rather they are complex and full of experiences and secrets which we are not lucky enough to know about.  I remember so many striking images of the girls together which represent the bond between them – which someone like me, who grew up with one brother, will never truly understand. The bond between sisters is shared experiences and identity and the ability to communicate without words.

Being a Lisbon sister is like being part of an exclusive club which we, on the outside, are only able to watch. We see the physical closeness in their combined grief and strength of support as they hug and hold each other in their bedroom after the tragedy of Cecilia’s death. In another scene the girls are seen all dressed in the same prom dresses, which were chosen by their mother.

“It made no difference which pattern of their dream dresses the girls chose: Mrs Lisbon added an inch to the bust line and two to the waist and hems, and the dresses came out as four identical sacks.”

The fact they were in it together meant they still ended up being the most envied girls at the school prom. Their love and unity is illustrated when they make a pact to end their lives together and to follow in the footsteps of their youngest sister, like they are each part of the whole and now it is broken they are no longer able to live.

“So much has been said about the girls over the years. But we have never found an answer. It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls… but only that we had loved them… and that they hadn’t heard us calling… still do not hear us calling them from out of those rooms… where they went to be alone for all time… and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”

Gas Food Lodging

USA 1992, Dir Allison Anders
By Manish Agarwal (Overnight Film Festival / Disaster Film Club)

Shaped partly by her own memories of growing up poor in a single-parent household in rural America, the two marketing taglines for Allison Anders’ early ’90s indie cinema gem are:

“When Shade’s good, she’s very good. But when Trudi’s bad, she’s better…”


“They’re sisters, but it will take a miracle to make them a family.”

In purely narrative terms that’s about the size of this unashamedly small-scale picture, set in a sleepy New Mexico desert town. It’s the kind of place that most people pass through – trailer parks, truck stops and actual tumbleweed – but Nora (Brooke Adams) is stuck waitressing at a diner while trying to raise a pair of polar-opposite teenage daughters, crammed into a mobile home that’s not going anywhere.

Our narrator is Shade (Fairuza Balk), a young daydreamer who escapes into a cross-cultural fantasy world fuelled by Spanish-language movie matinees at the local fleapit. She longs to find a man for her mother, while nursing her own crush on a flamboyant, glam-loving boy. Trudi (Ione Skye) is a couple years older and embittered by experience, skipping school and sleeping around, belligerence and promiscuity masking insecurities and injustice.

If this sounds too grit-in-the-kitchen-sink sad then rest assured it’s really not. Gas Food Lodging mines a rich seam of bittersweet humour and unsentimental home truths, gilded by J Mascis’ languid electric guitar score and some gorgeous, sundazed cinematography. All three women have their (mis)adventures, but the film focuses more on character than plot, with sibling dynamics to the fore.

The sisters share a bedroom that’s barely big enough to swing a mood, their relationship pinballing between outright antagonism, sarcastic teasing and hushed secrets. Shade is appalled by Trudi’s disrespect for Nora and casual racism towards a fresh-faced Mexican waiter turned projectionist; at the same time, she seeks her big sister’s guidance in affairs of the heart and dreads the day when she’ll leave. For her part, Trudi dispenses sex and seduction advice with love and affection, totally aware that boyish distractions are a distant second to the deeper, unspoken bond between them.

I first saw this grunge-era favourite on video thanks to my own sister – two years younger but always way cooler than her brother – who recorded it off late night TV way back when. That tape is probably still gathering dust at our parents’ house…


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