Based on real events in late 2008 and through most of 2009, writer/director Sofia Coppola‘s latest film takes a look at a group of teenagers from Calabasas, California who burglarized several Hollywood celebrities with the help of tabloid and gossip blogs (which told the gang when the celebrities would be out of town) and the stars themselves (as many left their homes defenseless, not even bothering to lock doors and windows). The group would come to be known as the Hollywood Hills Burglars or The Bling Ring.
Although the film spends time with all the members of the group, the primary focus is on Rebecca (Katie Chang), the instigator of the robberies, and her best friend Marc (Israel Broussard), a shy gay teen willing to do nearly anything for his first real best friend. The group also includes Chloe (Claire Julien), a friend with the criminal connections to help the Bling Ring fence some of their stolen merchandise, and the homeschooled threesome of Nicki (Emma Watson), her younger sister Emily (Georgia Rock), and her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga).
Given its release so soon after Harmony Korine‘s Spring Breakers many are likely to compare the two films. There are, however, some important differences worth mentioning. Where Korine’s more over-the-top film dealt with members of the group being seduced by the violence and power of their new reality, The Bling Ring is much more concerned with the group’s obsession with celebrities and their lifestyle. While being questioned Katie Chang’s character can only express curiosity about what Lindsay Lohan is really like when she learns the police have talked with their victims. Yes, the money the group stole from the various celebrities was they spent in excess of both booze and drugs, and several others were pawned or sold brazenly in the open, but their prize possessions were the numerous personal items each member of the Bling Ring kept from their robberies.
As Broussard’s character remarks, the real problem for the teens wasn’t fear of getting caught but the ease with which they were able to continue to make their break-ins which emboldened them to take more risks. In fact, the Bling Ring break into Paris Hilton‘s home (who makes a brief cameo and whose home is used in the movie) more than a half-dozen times over the course of the film, but the thieves take so little from the garish opulence the star is clueless that they have been there.
The film is wonderfully shot by cinematographers Christopher Blauvelt and Harris Savides knowing when to give us a close look at the group, and when to pull back and the the action speak for itself. In one instance, the robbery of Audrina Patridge‘s home by Marc and Rebecca, the camera stays back showcasing the entire robbery of the mostly glass house from a distance. Coppola and her directors of photography also aren’t afraid to draw out a scene and continue to let the cameras roll. The best example of this are when the police have begun their arrests and finally arrive for Chloe. We aren’t shown her actual arrest, but the slow build up to it is terrific.
In a film about a group of kids mostly hanging out in homes of celebrities they don’t really consider strangers, we are also given a pair of jarring scenes. The first is a horrific traffic accident fairly early in the film as the group leaves their favorite hot spot drunk and high (for neither for the first nor last time). Aside from being a great sequence on its own, and showcasing how little puishment the minor from a wealthy family received, the scene naturally amps up the tension each time one of these oblivious characters gets behind the wheel throughout the rest of the movie as wait anxiously to see if circumstances will repeat themselves.
The second, which is as close in tone as Spring Breakers which celebrated and sexualized Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson‘s use of guns, takes place during one of the robberies when Farmiga’s character gets her hand on a handgun. It is by far the movie’s most uncomfortable scene. As in many cases of the film, Marc’s discomfort is a stand-in for that of the audience as both he, and the audience, know this can’t end well for anyone. The method by which the script gives us the scene’s payoff is both brilliant and truly scary.
Although most of the story is shown in a linear fashion, we do get interviews with several of the characters after their arrest talking with lawyers, news media, or psychologists. This is a method Coppola has used before, most notably in her first film The Virgin Suicides, and allows the director more freedom in deciding when the audience learns specific pieces of information about each character. It’s used effectively here, even if at times some of the events are covered twice.
Chang and Broussard make for an odd choice of leads, but their friendship carries the film as Marc finds a true confidant and a lifestyle that earns him a spot at the cool kids table and Rebecca finds a partner in crime who would do anything for her. The fallout of their relationship, and how it is handled without a single word is honest and crushing for a pair of kids who were not so long ago having the time of their lives.
Although her role is far from the most prominent, Emma Watson is the real star of the film. Through Nicki’s eyes we see the intensely addictive nature of the Bling Ring’s excursions as well as how naively she tries to legitimize her behavior both to herself and others while at the same time trying to use it in hopes of having a little of that celebrity rub off on her. It’s easy to play dumb on film, it’s hard to do so in a believable and natural way that makes us feel for the character despite her reprehensible actions. After graduating from Hogwarts, Watson continues to impress and is likely to get some well-deserved recognition for this role.
I have to take a second to remark on the perfect casting of Leslie Mann as the stay-at-home mom for Nicki, who homeschools all three girls with the kind of pop culture religious psychology that is both bitingly satiric and whimsically sad. In the hands of a lesser actress this role would have been pure parody, but Mann sells it and makes us take the woman and her ridiculous rationale for seeing the world seriously (even if we are laughing at her the entire time).
I’ll admit, I’m a huge fan of Sofia Coppola’s work and the methods she uses to tell personal stories of lost individuals whether they be in the hotels of Tokyo or Los Angeles, the Michigan suburbs, or the Palace of Versailles. Despite some great filmmaking I have a feeling I may return to The Bling Ring less often than to her other movies. The Bling Ring is populated with fascinating, even humorous, but ultimately irredeemable and repulsive, human beings. As a commentary on teens view of celebrity and disregard for the consequences of their own actions it succeeds without ever feeling preachy. However, it’s also filled with vapid and self-destructive characters whose story fascinated me but I don’t know if I’ll want to return for seconds anytime soon.