Wednesday, December 18, 2013

“The Bling Ring” Shines an Unflattering Light on Fame-Obsessed Teens

Yes, it's another look at teens as materialistic jerks.
More than a few people have drawn a line between The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers (click here for my review), and there’s certainly something to that. Both are teen crime dramas that tread similar thematic ground involving the materialistic vanity and icy ambivalence of a generation brought up on social media and reality television. Both come from the A24 Films and feature former child stars breaking bad. Hell, both even contain show-stopping, single-take robberies from an exterior vantage point.

However, while the two make for interesting companion pieces, they are far from the same film. Spring Breakers, as James Franco put it in his trolling review over at Vice “is all subtext, bitches.” It’s a lot less concerned with story than it is with making its critiques and creating a surrealistic experience. As such, it’s not for everybody. And by everybody, I mean most people.

The Bling Ring isn’t for everybody either, but it’s certainly more accessible than Spring Breakers. It’s based on real events, and so there’s more of a story to tell. It revolves around a group of privileged So-Cal kids who manage to steal over $3 million worth of property from the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Audrina Partridge and Lindsay Lohan before getting caught, simply by having the balls to walk up and check if the doors are unlocked.

The Bling Ring has a mansion robbery in which all the action
happens while the camera holds this shot.
“I think we just wanted to be part of the lifestyle – the lifestyle that everybody kind of wants,” explains Marc (Israel Broussard), a gay kid with self-confidence issues who happens to be the lone guy in the titular Bling Ring. The group also consists of chilly ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang), wild child Chloe (Claire Julien) and fame-obsessed sisters Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga).

Acting across the board is uniformly solid, but best in show is Watson, who, unlike Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in Spring Breakers, stakes a strong claim for herself as a serious actress. This is about as far away from Hermione Granger as one can get, and Watson all but disappears into the role, totally nailing the cadences and mannerisms of Alexis Neiers, her character’s real-life counterpart who eventually capitalized on the fame of the robberies and became a reality TV star. If you jointly consider her work here and in This Is The End, Watson may have somehow managed to be the most amusing woman in film this year.

Very little effort is put into explaining the members of the Bling Ring or even in developing them much as characters, but that’s intentionally done as a way to hold viewers at a distance. One can imagine a movie that gives these kids more shading, painting them as victims of the oppressive consumerism that people like Hilton and Lohan help perpetuate, but it’s hard to believe Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, Somewhere), a writer/director with a Luis Vuitton line bearing her name, would hold the fashion industry accountable like that.

The film hints at an intriguing generational divide when it
comes to celebrity preoccupations.
The script does make room to sympathize with Marc, and that has intriguing gender implications for sure, but, for the most part, these characters are a vapid lot focused almost exclusively on self promotion and social standing. They spend an awful lot of time taking selfies and posting them to Facebook to achieve a sort of validation for their experiences, and it’s interesting that the emotional climax of the movie comes in a moment when Marc realizes Rebecca has defriended him. It’s the devastating flip-side of the last scene from The Social Network.

Other than self-actualization through social media, obsession with celebrity lifestyle is the main focus here, and that’s unsurprising given Coppola’s oeuvre. Perhaps in part due to her standing as Hollywood royalty, Coppola has long made an auteur go of dissecting the concept of celebrity from various angles.

Interestingly enough, despite their fixation on trash culture, the characters in The Bling Ring don’t do much celebrity worshipping. That – the movie suggests – is how the former generation responded to famous people.  In one scene, Nicki’s mom (Leslie Mann) annoys her daughters with a vision board dedicated to Angelina Jolie. When she asks them what they admire about Jolie, the quick retort is “her husband,” which indicates exactly where these girls’ heads are at – not on what makes Jolie a celebrity, but on the spoils that celebrity brings. The film ultimately suggests societal preoccupations are being warped, and we now have an entitled and vacuous generation that is far more concerned with recognition than achievement. B+