Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rich Girl Gone Too Far: THE BLING RING

The true story of L.A. teens from comfortably affluent families burglarizing the homes of celebrities is a big fat satirical target, but Sofia Coppola is too empathetic a director to get too savage with her filmmaking. In The Bling Ring she approaches the subject with tenderness and understanding, creating a vivid look into vacuousness. No frivolous froth or hysterical cautionary tale, this is a film that's concerned deeply about shallowness without condescending. (Well, okay, it's more like "rarely condescending.") Even if Coppola takes shots at their societal surroundings, she doesn't knock the kids themselves or the celebrity targets, some, like Paris Hilton, making brief cameos playing themselves. It’s a film that’s often very funny, not because it’s mean-spirited, but because it acknowledges the inherent seriousness of the silliness in which the characters find themselves, a fact that escapes them for much longer than you’d expect.

The film focuses on a group of stylish high schoolers who conflate brand worship with aspiring towards celebrity. They see the kind of famous represented by being a socialite in a dubiously real reality show like The Simple Life or The Hills and access to prestige brands that can be gained by it. Not actual prestige, mind you; the brands are all they’re after. These are kids who live in a town of celebrity and glamour of one kind or another. They spend their lives so close (and yet so far) to the lifestyles of the rich and famous. We see they’re frequently at a club Hilton, Kirsten Dunst and "a producer of Entourage" frequent. This group of kids takes advantage of the proximity of celebrity and the ease of information access to do something so simple it’s amazing no one had thought to take advantage of it before. They’re pioneers of a sort. The addresses of the stars are a Google away, as is news of the celebrity travel plans and social engagements.

At the core of the film are the ringleader (Katie Chang) and the boy (Israel Broussard) who has a crush on her and is drawn into her world. First, she opens unlocked cars and lifts money. Then, she moves on to wandering into the mansions of vacationing classmates. Soon, she, he, and eventually a small group of friends, go on riskier, more frequent trips, loitering in empty homes of Hilton – she’s a favorite – and Lindsay Lohan, Audrina Patridge (a star of The Hills), Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox, and Rachel Bilson as well. There’s a sense of mob mentality slowly bubbling up out of group dynamics as the crime escalates with more and more brand-name purses, dresses, shoes, and shades lifted from the target mansions. They’re showing off for each other, grabbing talismans of cultural currency and imagining they have the lifestyles they feel they deserve.

Coppola and her cinematographers Harris Savides and Christopher Blauvelt (who took over after Savides passed away) take a dynamic, but composed approach to shooting these antics. I particularly loved a static wide shot of a glassed-in home at night, rooms lighting up with the intruders scrambling in. There's little Ocean’s Eleven pleasing fizzle or Bonnie and Clyde tonal whiplash here. Their capers are coldly presented. What at first seems a surprising crime is drained of its surprise through repetition of the act - the home invasions are frequent and similar - and a camera that observes rather than sensationalizes. It’s all shiny surface, shallow, brightly lit by day, by night, vivid montage, the big houses cool oasis in humid darkness. The perspective from which Coppola views the events is easy and restrained, comfortable watching and cataloguing the goings-on. She’s objective, but hardly disinterested. The deceptive emptiness of the filmmaking sometimes makes this a hard film to enjoy, but a rich film to reflect upon.

The camera lingers on logos and representations of behavior. On laptop screens, gossip sites and Facebook converge. The Bling Ring is performing for each other on much the same playing field as celebrities in the public of the Internet. Their posts and their actions are both empty gestures representing tedious lives barely covered by the impression of activity. Even their break-ins lose the transgressive edge. They’re just as bored and purposeless anywhere; burglarizing and partying is all the same to them, shiny surfaces with which they can hide their emptiness. For the most part, the celebrities they rob exhibit similar shallowness, celebrity and lifestyles built solely around conspicuous consumption and living out tabloid fantasy, where what got you famous or infamous isn’t as important as the trappings of fame itself. (Though poor Bloom, Bilson and Fox, working actors, get roped into the mess as well, throwing off the pattern.)

The Bling Ring itself is made up of characters who seem like real kids, with some of the dialogue sounding so true in a you-couldn’t-write-something-so-perfectly-oblivious way that it could be plucked right from depositions and the reality show that a few of them would in real life end up on. The acting is loose and natural. Especially good are Taissa Farmiga, who played the troubled teen in the first season of American Horror Story and Emma Watson, Harry Potter’s Hermione. Used to playing smart young women, they prove themselves more than ever to be smart performers as well. Playing these rich California girls, they let their eyes go blank and accents drawl into Valley Girl stylings. They, as well as the other girls (Claire Julien and George Rock, in their debuts), blend together in the crowd scenes, all of them aspiring to stand out by fitting in. (That old chestnut.) The group is full of performances impressively inhabited. All the kids have a kind a vacant babbling, but it’s not limited to them. A mother played by Leslie Mann, the only one we more than glimpse here, has a pop pseudo-philosophy Secret-inspired homeschooling curriculum built around dream boards, wishful thinking and Adderall.

Coppola's film is an empathetic critique, even when the walls of justice, as represented by cops, lawyers, and judges, close in on the group. What felt consequence free for so long is suddenly not. The character played by Watson gets the last word, her character shamelessly promoting herself right up to the credits, claiming the crimes were a great “learning lesson,” and trying to put in a plug for her website. It had me thinking of Repo Man’s famous death scene of a white suburban punk in which the teen says "I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am." The Bling Ring doesn't allow its characters this satirical insight. Society made them what they are and they'd greedily lap up the attention as long as society would mention them in the same breath as the people from whom they stole. They’re kids for whom being famous is to have your face on TMZ and so infamy gets you just as far.

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