After her opulent 2006 effort Marie Antoinette fell so flat with critics, Sofia Coppola apparently decided to scale down her vision and go for something close to home, directing a quiet, modest, and altogether affecting little drama with 2010's Somewhere. Following a burned-out action star named Johnny (Stephen Dorff) as he spends a week with his heretofore neglected 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), while her mom -- whose relationship with Johnny, we assume, was brief -- is out of town, the movie acts as a fly on the wall while the unlikely pair bum around his massive suite at the Chateu Marmont, embark on a brief press tour to Italy, and learn some largely unspoken lessons about happiness, parenthood, and the ridiculousness of life in Hollywood.
Dorff made minor waves in the '90s as a tough-but-pretty boy in movies like S.F.W., which made him few friends in critical circles. But even the actor's harshest critics would have to agree that this only makes him better suited for his role in Somewhere, since the less you like him, the more believable the part becomes. And certainly it can be said that Elle Fanning does a more than adequate job of portraying the innocent but pensive preteen Cleo, but it's not an overly difficult job, since Cleo is not required to demonstrate a particularly large range of emotions. But that's not a slight against anyone; emotionally, this movie is about Johnny.
Indeed, even though we sit through plenty of obligatory scenes in which Cleo is just barely shielded from the hollow drinking and womanizing that fill Johnny's days when he isn't getting a hundred times more out of life just sitting by the pool with his little girl, Coppola makes it clear that Cleo is doing just fine. As long as her dad is around -- just enough to buy her a new backpack, hear her talk about Twilight, etc. -- she's okay. Cleo doesn't need some big, torrential scene where she screams and cries about why her dad isn't around more -- he's around enough. By the time the movie reaches any kind of emotional apex, it's clear that if there's a problem, it's Johnny's.
Coppola's use of symbolism can be a little heavy-handed at times (the movie opens on Dorff in his sports car, literally driving in circles), but she still avoids coming off as trite. This may be because she remains so restrained in the simplicity of her message. While there have been any number of films about parenthood, most all of them have attributed particularly grand meaning to it, espousing in all caps that good parents get more meaning out of life! Bad parents ruin their kids' lives! Whereas the message of Somewhere is much more nuanced: all you have to do is be there.