Priscilla (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Sophia Coppola, Italy/US, 2023, 113 mins

Cast:  Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi

Review by Carol Allen

When 14 year old Priscilla became the girl friend of 24 year old rock superstar Elvis Presley in 1959, she must have been the envy of teenage girls all over the world.   Today we would tend to look on such a relationship with horror and mutterings of “grooming”.   Coppola’s film however does not judge.   Based on Priscilla’s 1985 bestseller ‘Elvis and Me, this is very much the story from her point of view, which director Coppola tells with sympathetic understanding.  

The couple meet when Priscilla’s stepfather is stationed in Germany with the US air force, where Elvis is doing the US equivalent of national service in the army.  Stepfather is persuaded to allow Priscilla to attend a party where Elvis will be present and Priscilla and the surprisingly awkward and shy Elvis connect.  Even more surprisingly, when Priscilla is 17, her family allow her to go and live with Elvis at Gracelands, while attending the nearby Catholic girls high school.   And this is where the dark fairy tale really begins.

The story spans a period which embraces the late fifties, when little girls were taught that their job when they grew up was to “stand by your man” and keep him happy, to the early seventies, when attitudes to relationships between men and women had dramatically changed.   And this relationship reflects that change in an extreme way.

There is no suggestion of sexual abuse. The couple. according to Priscilla, were affectionate with each other and even shared a bed but didn’t have sex until after they married in 1967.  It’s a much more complex affair than just being about sex.  Priscilla is more like a fairy tale heroine, caught up in a wonderland of wealth but with no freedom.  The issue is more one of control in every area of her life. This comes over particularly strongly in a sequence, where Priscilla is choosing clothes and is subject to the approval of Elvis and his coterie of male mates/hangers on, turning her into an unsuitably dressed Barbie doll in sexy frocks and stiletto heels.  In view of that, it is surprising that there is no appearance in the film of the now infamous Colonel Tom Parker, who exerted such iron control over Elvis and who might perhaps have been a factor in his protégé’s controlling attitude?.

The difference in the couple’s heights also emphasizes the control issue, with Elordi, at well over six feet, positively looming over the extremely petite Spaeny.

Elordi gives us a very different Elvis from  Austin Butler’s depiction  in last year’s film Elvis.   We never see him on stage, so he’s not called on to sing or gyrate.  This is the still rather shy and gauche country boy behind the on stage façade.  Elordi gets aspects we remember of young Elvis from interviews just right – the speaking voice, the facial expressions and the stance – while in looks he’s managed to make himself a dead ringer for the original.  And despite the bizarre nature of the relationship with Priscilla, it is not an unsympathetic presentation.

The focus of the film though is Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla, who carries the character with total conviction from a naïve and impressionable schoolgirl to a young mother struggling to find her own identity in a relationship with a man she loves but ultimately cannot live with.   A gift of a role, which she plays to perfection.  Will be interesting to see what she does next.