In her last two movies, director Sofia Coppola has focused her attention on characters living inside bubbles of privilege, where the invisible magic of wealth and power makes wishes come true.
“The Bling Ring,” her new feature, continues in this vein from a somewhat different perspective. It is not about the paralysis of having more than you could possibly want, but rather about the addictive thrills of wanting what you can't quite have.
The Southern California teenagers at the center of the movie do not reside in a bubble of money and celebrity, but they can see through the membrane and touch its shiny, thin surface. They can even reach inside.
Mostly rich kids with access to cars, drugs and Internet gossip sites, these low-affect rebels believe that anything not already in their grasp should be. And so they start breaking into the surprisingly unprotected homes of the beautiful and glamorous and making off with whatever catches their eye: shoes, dresses, handbags, watches, rolls of cash.
It is something other than simple greed that motivates these young thieves, whose leader is a reckless, terrifyingly poised girl named Rebecca (Katie Chang). Already hooked on the rush of petty theft, she is also interested in fame.
Rebecca and her new friend Marc (Israel Broussard) are the nucleus of a gang that also includes Chloe (Claire Julien), a free-spirited classmate, and Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga), friends since childhood who are home-schooled by Nicki's mother (Leslie Mann). Their M.O. is simple and, for a surprisingly long while, foolproof. The Internet tells them when a given celebrity is out of town hosting a benefit or shooting a movie. Private security patrols are easily evaded, and the doors are never locked.
“The Bling Ring,” drawn from an article in Vanity Fair by Nancy Jo Sales, sticks to the contours of a true story. There is a whiff of tabloid incredulity in Coppola's version of the story. Once the main characters are caught, the explanations they offer are at least as disturbing as the crimes themselves.
These moments are funny, and it is often easy to laugh at the blasé attitudes and clueless expressions of the teenage burglars. But “The Bling Ring” is neither a cautionary tale of youth gone wrong nor a joke at the expense of kids these days. Although Rebecca, Marc and Chloe may be shallow and amoral, they are also acting in the grip of a genuine aesthetic compulsion, feeding an appetite for beauty and intensity that is hardly theirs alone.
The film has a quiet, sensual glow that communicates the lust that drives its characters. By night, the empty homes of the famous become enchanted places, and flashy swag turns into treasure.
“The Bling Ring” occupies a vertiginous middle ground between banality and transcendence, and its refusal to commit to one or the other is both a mark of integrity and a source of frustration.