Ripped from the headlines—or rather Nancy Jo Sales' Vanity Fair article "The Suspect Wore Louboutins"—Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring delivers true crime with a dash of social satire.
Yes, the names have been changed (more to protect the filmmakers from lawsuits than "to protect the innocent"), but the setting and characters all correspond to real-life figures implicated in what came to be known as "the Bling Ring" (or "the Burglar Bunch"). The film opens in Calabasas, California, circa 2009, as a group of teenagers commit a robbery. In a classic Sofia Coppola touch, the "alarm"ing rock of Sleigh Bells' "Crown on the Ground" kicks in as the teens trespass.
Flashing back, the film establishes young Marc (Israel Broussard) as a misguided but sympathetic protagonist. An implicitly gay outcast, the newly transferred Indian Hills High School student happens into a friendship with one Rebecca (Katie Chang). They bond over their mutual interest in celebrity fashion and clothing design. Rebecca teaches Marc how to "check cars" for joyrides, petty theft, and/or shopping sprees with found credit cards; soon thereafter, they're chasing the high by letting themselves in to a home they know will be empty.
Coppola's screenplay captures the casual escalation, the seeming inevitability that this perfect storm of disaffected youth and celebrity worship would lead a widening circle of friends (including characters played by Emma Watson and Taissa Farmiga) to start pillaging the homes of celebrities when the gossip sites report they'll be out shooting movies, attending events, or living in other residences. The justifications reflect common and historic reasoning behind theft, from shoplifting to bank robberies: the victims can afford it, and they deserve it (Paris Hilton, whose person and home appear in the film, would leave her key under the mat).
The material is a good match for Coppola, who has a talent for locating the pulse of wired-but-unbound modern youth culture. Coppola conveys the euphoria of acting out and becoming "in," and she has lived what Marc calls "the lifestyle that everybody kind of wants." The latter point is a double-edged sword: Coppola risks the impression that she's either eating her own (the subjects of TMZ) or condescending to the proletariat (the consumers of TMZ). And despite Coppola's admirable sociological data mining, there can be a disconcerting "hall of mirrors" effect, as in the scene that recreates a moment from the scripted "reality" TV show Pretty Wild ("Girls!" Leslie Mann's blinkered mother yells. "Time for your Adderall!").
With the help of late cinematographer Harris Savides (who established a look for co-credited Christopher Blauvelt before having to step back), Coppola remains mesmerizingly stylish. Her tendency seems to be to want to find her films in the editing room, which may not be the best policy, despite some good results (like the post-gavel-bang slo-mo that kicks in as the riposte to the characters' "Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well" attitude). "The Bling Ring" winds up being skin deep: superficial characters portrayed superficially in a shallow-pool reflection of shallowness.