Three days after seeing The Bling Ring, I still can’t reconcile the cognitive dissonance I felt as I left the theater. It makes sense to me that thus far the film has received similarly mixed reviews. I’m not the only one rattled by Sofia Coppola’s determinedly noncommittal fictionalization of the exploits of the “Hollywood Hills Burglar Bunch”, a group of well-off suburban teens who stole an estimated three million dollars’ worth of cash, clothes, jewelry, drugs and art from the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom and Lindsay Lohan. Based closely on “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” a 2010 Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, The Bling Ring rarely ventures far from the details of the case that are already public record. Anyone looking for an intimate glimpse into the lives of these teenagers or a comfortable explanation of their behavior will be left cold by Coppola’s calculatedly distanced approach. The visual and musical flourishes of her distinctive mode of filmmaking are all here in full force, but Coppola seems determined not to embellish this already stranger-than-fiction episode of American pop culture.
At the center of the film’s unlikely group of teen felons are best friends Rebecca and Marc, played with sensitivity and depth by virtual unknowns Katie Chang and Israel Broussard. Like Coppola’s very first film, The Virgin Suicides, her latest is a story about a group of girls, told mainly by a boy who is both fascinated and terrified by them. By default, this boy, Marc, is the closest thing The Bling Ring has to a moral center—maybe because his confession to a reporter, which we hear in voice-over throughout the film, sounds a little less like total bullshit than those of the rest of the group.
Rebecca, by turns disarmingly warm and icily manipulative, is the Burglar Bunch’s bona fide ringleader. Coppola tempers the hard edges of her self-assurance with only the quietest hints of insecurity and desperation. Marc, on the other hand, exudes vulnerability. Halfway out of the closet, he eventually tells a reporter that he loved Rebecca “like a sister.” During one of their six raids of Paris Hilton’s house, he tries on a pair of pink high heels, ostensibly as a joke, but secretly keeps them. At one point, he records a Photobooth video of himself smoking weed and shyly booty-shaking around his room to Ester Dean’s “Drop It Low”—a meticulous restaging of a video that the inspiration for his character, Nick Prugo, recorded, and which aired on TMZ. The crooked, dark red lipstick Marc wears in the film version, however, is Coppola’s own touch.
The movie—and the headlines—ultimately belong to Nicki, a secondary member of the Burglar Bunch, played by Emma Watson. Nicki and her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) pop Adderall and Xanax like Tic Tacs. Their mother (Leslie Mann) home-schools them on a steady curriculum of The Secret with a healthy dose of Scientology, giving them positive role models like Angelina Jolie. For Nicki—an aspiring actress, model and reality TV starlet—the sky’s the limit. She’s shrewd enough to spin her arrest into “a huge learning lesson” on her path to fame and glory. If at first you find Emma Watson’s Kardashian-inspired Calabasas accent cartoonish, try plunging into the existential void of a quick YouTube search for Alexis Neiers, her real-life counterpart. Watson’s performance, all things considered, is positively restrained.
In fact, almost all of the kookiest details and wildest one-liners from The Bling Ring (“What did Lindsay say?” “I want to lead a country…”) are direct quotes from the Vanity Fair article that served as its main source material. The last scene is lifted verbatim from an actual TV interview Neiers gave, in which she discusses, with practiced nonchalance, what it was like to spend thirty days in the same cellblock as the Bling Ring’s final victim and “ultimate fashion icon” Lindsay Lohan. There is a fine line between glorifying these kids and taking vengeance on them, and Coppola treads carefully so as not to fall either way.
Her caution has a price—a kind of polite airbrushing away of much of the ugliness these events might otherwise carry with them. Though she has changed their names, Coppola has nonetheless given the real-life members of the Bling Ring the true Hollywood treatment. They are played by glamorous stars and bright young newcomers, who look like actors or models long before they start stealing Alexander McQueen sunglasses. Their burglaries—sad, fumbling maneuvers when caught on grainy surveillance footage—become something entirely different when lit and photographed so gracefully and set to a soundtrack by Sleigh Bells and Azealia Banks. Marc pays lip service to America’s “sick fascination with the Bonnie and Clyde kind of thing,” but his retroactive self-awareness can’t quite take back the rush of that radiating music, or dim that endless barrage of iPhone flashes across these teenagers’ luminous faces.
At times, Coppola—and cinematographers Harris Savides and Christopher Blauvelt—seem poised to reclaim the story as something entirely their own, to welcome and guide us through what is otherwise a stylish refraction of fact. In one of the quietest (and most translucently masterful) moments of the film, we see one of the robberies entirely through a single, distant shot of a glass-walled mansion perched in the Hollywood hills. As this view slowly pushes in, we can see lights turning on and off, doors flying open, the kids scurrying around excitedly within, like figures in a glowing dollhouse. They seem at once childish and sinister, enchanted and pathetic. But the moment soon dissipates; the music starts back up.
Maybe I wanted The Bling Ring to sting a little more, for it to hurt the way a film like Network hurts. It has its moments of biting satire—Nicki’s final plug for her website, Marc’s bashful grin of utter satisfaction as he tells a reporter that he got over eight hundred friend requests on Facebook following his arrest. It is somehow both infuriating and deeply admirable that Coppola doesn’t pretend to understand what led these teenagers to play their high-stakes game of dress-up. Her version of the story would still be at home between full-page Burberry and Grey Goose ads in Vanity Fair—another beautiful, impassable surface.