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Dustin Putman

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The Bling Ring  (2013)
4 Stars
Directed by Sofia Coppola.
Cast: Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Georgia Rock, Leslie Mann, Carlos Miranda, Gavin Rossdale, Stacy Edwards, G. Mac Brown, Marc Coppola, Janet Song, Annie Fitzgerald, Paris Hilton.
2013 – 90 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for teen drug and alcohol use, and for language including some brief sexual references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 19, 2013.
Taking into account her entire directorial résumé—2000's "The Virgin Suicides," 2003's "Lost in Translation," 2006's "Marie Antoinette," 2010's "Somewhere," and now 2013's "The Bling Ring"—Sofia Coppola is undoubtedly my artistic soul mate. We have never met, and yet every decision she makes as a filmmaker—her naturalistic writing, her transcendent photography and ruminative editing, her indelible use of music, her intuitive work with her actors, her staggeringly unforced yet impactful comments about human behavior and longing—is in perfect lock and step with my own cinematic sensibilities. Her work is graceful, focused, and subtle yet visionary, but even more than all of that, her motion pictures speak to me in a way that is rare and miraculous. If "Marie Antoinette" was more a revisionist, anachronistic biography of sorts, then "The Bling Ring" could be considered her first docudrama. This isn't some predictable, overdone, point-A-to-point-B Lifetime movie, though, but a cautionary, almost mournful, snapshot of today's fame-obsessed youth culture. Though the events portrayed occurred in 2008-2009, "The Bling Ring," based on the Vanity Fair article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins" by Nancy Jo Sales, doesn't tell what happened so much as what's happening. It's a here-and-now exploration into Generation-Z, the lives on display preoccupied by what's cool, what's criminal, and what's got a trendy name brand, simultaneously affected and long since disaffected by the onslaught of technology and social media at their disposal. Coppola welcomes her audience to hop into the backseat for a joyride as dangerously thrilling as it is vividly disturbing, and she needn't look back.

Marc (Israel Broussard) arrives at Calabasas, California's Indian Hills High School for what is hoped by his parents to be a fresh start. He fell in with the wrong crowd before, and he looks to do the same thing again when, on his first day, the head-strong Rebecca (Katie Chang) takes him under her wing. They become close friends—as Marc tells it, best friends—going to the beach together, hanging out at Hollywood hot spots they're too young for, indulging in recreational drug use, and shopping for to-die-for clothes and accessories. Becca's favorite boutique of choice: the homes of the rich and famous, stealthily breaking in and taking what she wants. After Marc goes along with her to Paris Hilton's mansion, finding out the heiress' address and her current whereabouts with a simple Google search, he becomes hooked, too, fearful of getting caught, yet drawn to the danger and excitement and the inevitable stolen money and fashions that come along with it. Pretty soon, Marc and Becca have invited along blonde ice queen Chloe (Claire Julien) and superficial homeschooled acquaintances Nicki (Emma Watson) and her kind-of-sort-of adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga), brought up on teachings of Rhonda Byrne's self-help book "The Secret" by Nicki's well-meaning but clueless mother (Leslie Mann). As their target residences widen—Audrina Patridge's, Orlando Bloom's, Megan Fox's, and Rachel Bilson's, among them—the teens become so caught up in the fantasy of wealth and celebrity they don't stop to consider the legal ramifications of the crimes they're committing. Then again, for people like Becca and Nicki, being famous for being infamous sounds like a brighter alternative to no fame at all.

Viewers who decide that they don't like "The Bling Ring" because the characters are unlikable, even shallow, will be missing the entire point. Yes, these kids seem to live their lives and judge their self-worth by what they have, and yes, they make truly damaging decisions by bragging about their misdeeds and posting about them on Facebook, quite literally fingering themselves as the criminals of interest in the robbery cases, but aren't they also merely damaged products of their own environment? Interspersed with after-the-fact interviews with the characters once their gig was up, the impressionable Marc talks about his insecurities, his feeling that he didn't have "A-list looks" until Becca took notice of him, while Nicki speaks in wide-eyed, crassly rehearsed sound bites: she calls the incident a "learning lesson" and even tells the media, "I might want to be the leader of a country someday, for all I know." Whereas most filmmakers would be tempted to ridicule these teens, writer-director Sofia Coppola confronts her human subjects—and they are human, as worrisome as that might be on occasion—with minimal satire and a forthrightness that lends them a certain amount of empathetic concern.

Evocatively photographed by the late, great Harris Savides (2010's "Greenberg") and Christopher Blauvelt (2011's "Meek's Cutoff") with a fly-on-the-wall approach that puts the viewer in the midst of Becca's and Marc's maelstrom of mischief right from the start—Sleigh Bells' propulsive, bass-heavy "Crown on the Ground" accompanies the immersive opening-credits montage of high valuables and palm tree surroundings—"The Bling Ring" is a razor-sharp tale of Los Angeleno intoxication in the 21st-century, a specific lifestyle and milieu where young people confuse realistic future aspirations with the perks that come with becoming a "known" hot commodity who draws viewers to reality shows and readers to the tabloids (the actual talent that might come from being a gifted thespians in film or television is plainly out of reach). Becca, Marc, Chloe, Nicki and Sam haven't gotten there, but they lose themselves in acting the part and taking back from their idols. Blinded by the glitzy imaginary lights in their eyes while struggling to find their way down an obscure road of wayward adolescence—a scene where Becca and Marc struggle to see as they drive through the pitch-black labyrinth of streets in the Hollywood Hills with only their headlights to guide them is hauntingly underscored by composers Brian Reitzell (2011's "Beginners") and Daniel Lopatin—they are at once victims of their particular time and place and unfortunate by-standards to a kind of distant, loose parenting that has entirely failed them.

Following these kids even in instances where one feels like he or she shouldn't, Coppola has made an endlessly fascinating exposé, all the more penetrating because of its lack of personal bias. Her cast, many of them either newcomers or relative novices, go beyond the call of duty, so raw and instinctive in their affectedness it's as if they are their characters. Israel Broussard (2010's "Flipped") is exceptionally charismatic as Marc, as close as the picture has to a protagonist; as an outsider who gets a pass to the inside, Broussard encapsulates in his performance the acceptance he's always yearned for and the betrayal he ultimately feels for being taken advantage of. Tops on the list of manipulators is the controlling, sweet-and-sour Becca, played with unforgettable cunning and authority by Katie Chang. When asked what she plans to do after graduation, her response that she hopes to attend the Fashion Institute of Design, "where all the 'Hills' girls went," is instantly telling. Chang handles herself with such confidence and command that one would never possibly guess that this is her feature debut. Never missing a beat, Emma Watson (2012's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower") plays ruthlessly against-type as Nicki, barely able to contain her disdain for her mother and anyone else threatening to steal the spotlight even as she plays the part of a demure, do-gooder philanthropist-in-the-making while being interviewed in front of the cameras. Is she fooling anyone?

Alive and electrifying, each scene upon scene a cinematic gift in and of itself, "The Bling Ring" gleams with far more than the diamonds Becca swaps from Paris Hilton's hidden closet of jewels. Beneath La La Land's sun-dappled landscape of manicured lawns, gated palaces, and ritzy Rodeo Drive shops lurks an underbelly of excess and envy magnified all the more by the presumed invincibility of pubescent rebellion. This is where people like Becca and Nicki reside within their own skewed, culture-influenced outlooks, and where ones like Marc are lured against their better judgment before getting spit back out. If director Sofia Coppola does not identify with these people, she does understand where they come from and how their single-minded visions have eaten up their souls. Provocative and beautifully crafted, radiating with another one of the auteur's typically flawless soundtrack compilations, "The Bling Ring" brings insight and hypnotic urgency to a story not to be believed if it weren't so unbelievably true.
© 2013 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman