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Heidi Venable

Critics Have Seen Priscilla, And They Are Raving About Cailee Spaeny’s Breakthrough Performance As Elvis’ Wife

Jacob Elordi as Elvis and Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla Presley in Priscilla.

Austin Butler stunned audiences as Elvis Presley in 2022’s biopic Elvis, which garnered eight Academy Award nominations, and now we're getting the story from a different perspective. Priscilla, which stars Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla Presley and Jacob Elordi as the King of Rock, gets its wide release on November 3. Critics have had a chance to screen the film that was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, and they are raving about the lead actress’ performance.

Priscilla was well-received at its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, earning a seven-minute standing ovation. It is an adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s memoir Elvis and Me, and with A24 being the studio that’s distributing the film, expectations are pretty high for the story of a 14-year-old girl who fell in love with the much-older cultural icon. Will this be another great movie from A24? Let’s see what the critics have to say before you hit the theater this weekend.

Aisha Harris of NPR praises the leading actress and the way that Sofia Coppola’s script immerses its audience in the perspective of its subject as a young girl, noting: 

The casting is spot-on: Spaeny may be in her mid-20s, but she's impressively (and eerily) convincing in the role of adolescent Priscilla, possessing a youthful and almost cherubic face and a winsome, awestruck energy. Her performance, too, is striking in its ability to convey the in-betweenness of that age, of lacking? self-confidence while striving for even a whiff of independence.

Mary Siroky of Consequence grades it an A-, calling the movie “an exercise in anxiety,” as the director proves to be an expert at communicating the devastation of being a young woman who feels trapped. The result is the audience constantly bracing for something terrible to happen, which the critic says does occur but also doesn’t. In Siroky’s words: 

Bolstered by the fantastic technical direction at every turn, Priscilla lands as a remarkably moving portrait not just of a pair of American icons, but also of a dissolving romance. It’s a quiet, consistent storm, like thunder rumbling over the horizon for hours and hours. Coppola was, without a doubt, the writer and director to tell this story — her films have become synonymous with the loneliest women in the most gilded cages, along with validating the messiness and alienation that can accompany girlhood.

Lauren Coates of AV Club lauds Cailee Spaeny’s breakout performance as Priscilla Presley, and says Jacob Elordi being super tall adds an effective physical aspect to his shining portrayal of Elvis. The critic gives the film a B+, writing: 

Sitting in near-perfect contrast to the image of Elvis Presley that’s been cultivated in modern Americana, Priscilla is an elegant, introspective, achingly lovely portrait of a pop culture icon. Unafraid of shattering rose-tinted glasses, Coppola’s film is fierce in its subtlety, relying on Spaeney’s breathtaking performance and the inherent tragedy of Priscilla’s story to deliver a film that’s equal parts beautiful and heartbreaking.

Kevin Nguyen of The Verge also has nothing but positive things to say about Cailee Spaeny in her “delicate, though not fragile” performance. But while the critic calls this Sofia Coppola’s strongest work in over a decade, Nguyen is left wanting. He explains: 

Something about the movie feels off. For one thing, Coppola’s character studies of both Priscilla and Elvis are fairly shallow. (Strangely, she can take ‘shallow’ to a satisfying place.) The balance of the film feels heavily weighted to the first half, which moves briskly, and becomes a weird slog in the second. Then, it ends somewhat suddenly, with resolution but little revelation. What are we supposed to take from the life of Priscilla Presley?

Several critics noted how truly opposite Sofia Coppola’s story is from Baz Luhrmann’s offering of Elvis last year, and the AP’s Jake Coyle agrees with the above assessment that the second half doesn't hit as hard as it should. Still, Coyle rates Priscilla 3 stars out of 4 and writes: 

There aren’t many false notes in Coppola’s richly layered film, handsomely shot by Philippe Le Sourd, with sumptuous production design from Tamara Deverell and fine, toned-down costumes by Stacey Battat. But Priscilla fades where Elvis found its footing. When Presley’s downturn accelerates in Las Vegas, Luhrmann’s movie swelled with tragedy. In the same time period here, Priscilla awakens. Yet it feels underdeveloped, coming too quickly, in a sudden rush — albeit a terrific rush, with Dolly Parton playing. A constant throughout, though, is Spaeny. This is a deft breakthrough performance perfectly poised between youthful fantasy and adult reality.

The critics seem to be impressed overall, save for a few quibbles, and those positive reactions extend beyond just the handful above. Priscilla has garnered a Rotten Tomatoes score of 86% Fresh from just under 150 ratings as of this writing. If you are excited to get Priscilla Presley’s side of the story, you can do so now, with the film hitting the big screen on November 3, and be sure to check out our 2023 Movie Schedule and see what else is coming soon from A24

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