Thursday, November 2, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

“O-oh, I’ve had it up to here.”

Priscilla Bealieu first met Elvis Presley on September 13th, 1959, after being invited to a party at his home in Bad Nauheim, West Germany. Presley had rented the house for the duration of his two-year tour of military service and was eager to entertain new American friends like Priscilla. She reminded him of the States, he confessed over the din of the party, and her company would be a source of solace as he nursed both his homesickness and the memory of his recently-departed mother, Gladys. Priscilla was excited to meet the twenty-four-year-old heartthrob, of course; he was music’s biggest star, one shining even brighter in light of his selfless decision to serve his country in uniform. She found herself quickly seduced by his boyish charm and intrigued by some fleeting whiffs of a deeper emotional vulnerability. She resolved to spend as much time with Presley as possible, but when his tour ended and he returned to the States — and his legions of adoring fans — Priscilla was forced to stay with her family. After all, she was only fourteen years old.
But the heart wants what it wants, and it’s not long before the once and future king is arranging for Priscilla to finish high school in Memphis — a scheme which involves his father, Vernon (Tim Post), becoming her temporary guardian (Yup! Pretty gross!) — and molding his quiet and unassuming “baby” into the ultimate celebrity bride. Priscilla plays along eagerly at first, relishing the power of her new status and even manipulating it to pass exams (“Are you an Elvis fan?” she asks while reaching for a classmate’s answers). But it’s not long before Elvis’ professional frustrations, creeping substance abuses, and illicit affairs with the likes of Nancy Sinatra and Ann-Margaret take their toll on the fantasy, slowly turning Priscilla’s charmed life into a nightmare. As Elvis struggles for self-definition — including a misguided and inadvertently hilarious detour into New Age mysticism — it becomes more and more difficult to keep a firm hold over his failing marriage. When even a new baby can’t mend the wounds, Priscilla decides that it’s time to finally reclaim her life.

Played with delicate intensity by Cailee Spaeny, Priscilla Presley is an ideal addition to the stable of penned-up princesses Sofia Coppola has been cultivating since The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. Priscilla begins as a wide-eyed idealist, a lonely girl who believes that the love of a boy can give her the purpose, value, and agency she so sorely desires. Priscilla is strongest in these early stretches, its elliptical structure underlining just how little everything else mattered to the lovestruck beauty in those first few months. Played by Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi — a lanky hunk who towers over his diminutive co-star — Elvis has an inarticulate, good ol’ boy affect that begins sheepish and polite but gradually degrades into duplicitous and manipulative as he falls further and further from grace. Elvis comes off all the worse because Coppola keeps our attention squarely on her titular character — she works from Mrs. Presley’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me — rarely deviating from her point of view. Trapping us in it, in fact, almost as if sentencing us to sleep in the bed she’s made.
And while skimming breezily through the pages of Elvis and Me feels thematically appropriate at first, that same bouncing, staccato structure makes Priscilla’s second hour a deeply frustrating watch. Coppola dips in and out of the drama just as it’s starting to develop, hardly letting any one scene go on for longer than a few seconds before cutting frantically to a new thread. Though Spaeny can — and does — move narrative mountains with the tiniest shifts in posture, Priscilla is often as bland and prosaic as Graceland, the chilly cathedral in which her character has been locked. It’s Coppola’s usual gift for layered interiority that’s sorely missing here, perhaps owing to the real Mrs. Presley’s involvement in the film’s production. Was Coppola unwilling or unable to articulate a true thesis, forced to grind down the rougher, more chaotic edges that would have interrogated Presley’s youthful naivety before celebrating her eventual catharsis? It’s hard to know for sure, but a filmmaker of Coppola’s caliber is capable of much more than what she delivers here.
Without that signature blend of intimacy and dramatic texture, Priscilla ends up with little to offer but some charming production design and a breakthrough lead performance from Spaeny, which has already made some well-deserved waves heading into this awards season. Her scenes with Elordi’s understated Elvis — the ones that are actually allowed to play out in full, that is — give us flashes of a shared emotional dependence in which the film simply doesn’t take the time to invest us. Perhaps that’s by design? It’s possible. It’s just hard not to feel like there was much more to unravel with Priscilla, a premise that would have benefited from Coppola’s keen insights into the perils of girlhood and her deep sense of empathy for the misbegotten and beguiled (no pun intended). Forgiving audience members may give the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt on that score, perhaps carrying in a little goodwill from the strikingly-similar but far better-executed Marie Antoinette. That warm, intuitive artist is lurking somewhere inside Priscilla. I hope we see her again soon.

Priscilla hits theaters on Friday, November 3rd.

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