Film Studies: She has her father's eyes... the rise of Ms Coppola

The first time I ever saw Sofia Coppola was in 1982 - so she was 10 or 11, and very fierce. She had to be. Her father's film, One From The Heart, had just opened, disastrously. He had been compelled to sell his Los Angeles studio. And on the day I visited him at his house in Rutherford, in the Napa Valley, Sofia was very busy doing her own drawings - voodoo images, almost - to post on the driveway to warn off bailiffs who might be coming to take the furniture.

No one could say she was sheltered from her father's life - but that was no guarantee that she would take to it. She had been on so many shoots: she is the baby baptised at the end of The Godfather; she played on the Philippine locations of Apocalypse Now, hardly aware of what kinds of breakdown were affecting her father; she was a kid actress in Rumble Fish; her brother, Gio, was killed in an accident during the making of Gardens of Stone; and, when Winona Ryder was too exhausted to play Michael Corleone's daughter in The Godfather Part III (1990), she was pushed forward by her father to fill the part.

The critics were not kind: she seemed gauche in a demanding and operatic role. But there were larger things wrong with that picture, and maybe her father guessed that she was strong enough to withstand the barrage. That trust is paying off.

In 2000, Sofia Coppola wrote and directed a first film, The Virgin Suicides, from the Jeffrey Eugenides novel. It seemed to me a moderate success, but no more, and it was possible to surmise that she had too much pretension and too little real skill from that picture. But now with her second movie, Lost in Translation, those doubts begin to fall away. This has the assurance to be a very small, gentle film, the off-hand account of two odd people who pass, and bump, in the night but who agree to move on on the assumption that not much has happened.

The setting is Tokyo, or to be precise, a luxury hotel. Two of the guests are Scarlett Johansson (playing the idle, bored, incipiently unhappy wife of a hip fashion photographer) and Bill Murray (cast with lovely irony as a Bogart-like Hollywood star who is getting $2m to film some inane commercials for a Japanese whisky). They meet because they can't sleep. They become friendly. They part. That's it. But they feel a little better about life.

I know, it doesn't sound sensational - and it's not trying to be.

On the other hand, it explores a lovely awed bewilderment with Japan that is half jet-lagged and half surreal. It slips effortlessly into the shyness of two lonely people who are simply too real to settle for some melodramatic affair.

And it performs the subtle conjuring trick of having Johansson (as a near non-entity) seem increasingly star-like, while Bill Murray (pretending to be a star) delivers one of his most tender observations of chronic eccentricity. It was done for $4m in 27 days; and it feels as if it might have been done while waiting for room service to deliver. It has enormous cool charm.

How much more is there to come? Who can say? It's plain that Sofia Coppola gets young, dreamy women on the edge of alienation. I can easily see her doing more notebook-like sketches about such characters, as appealing as this. But can she summon the will or the need to take such a character and make her like... well, like a Corleone? Does she need to? Her father, for good and ill, always made very grand pictures. He often talked about doing a small movie, but he could never tame his own energy enough to seem casual. Sofia grew up in that storminess, and may have learned a lot about being cool.

It's not just welcome, but part of a new trend in American movie-making, a way in which some directors work with the bemused air of novelists.

At that point, of course, one needs to observe that Sofia Coppola is married to Spike Jonze (the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.), she is a good friend to Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), she has always been the cousin of Nic Cage, and she is chums with Zoe Cassavetes, the daughter of John and Gena Rowlands.

It sounds like family business, yet it's different. Francis Coppola made family his subject and his way of working. But Sofia Coppola seems capable of noting it as just a pattern - one among many - in the vagaries of life.

It makes you realise that some fierce kids may be nurturing an impressive calm within.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'Lost in Translation' is screening at the London Film Festival (020 7928 3232), 28 & 29 Oct

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