The Bling Ring, photo courtesy A24films
If the characters from Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, weren't rich and grew up in the San Fernando Valley, they might have been the characters in The Bling Ring, the new film directed by Sofia Coppola. The film based on true events, shows the rise and fall of a group of high school kids who rob the celebrities they most admire, of their jewelry, clothes, purses and shoes. Oh and any cash or drugs they can find too. On the surface, the film gives you a glimpse into the superficial life of a group of misguided teens.
The first time two of the kids walk into Paris Hilton's closet after easily Googling where she lives and when she will be out of town, we see the amount of designer stuff wedged into closets the size of an average bedroom and it is stunning. It is immediately obvious that these kids were just on a shopping spree; the line between "mine" and "yours" having been erased by internet celebrity sites, star tweets, and everyday paparazzi, making the distance between the famous and regular folk only a virtual search away. The minutia of information Rebecca, the initiator of the band of robbers, has on her favorite celebs is monumental but at the same time so common that it has become the norm; knowing that Paris wore a certain designer dress to a specific event is a detail any kid would know, right? Hours of internet anonymity has made everyone a potential stalker and the line between driving by your favorite star's home and wandering into their home, has been annulled.
It is no coincidence that the kids of The Bling Ring, become their own self-styled paparazzi, taking "selfies" where they pose and mug in imitation of the celebrities they most admire, and then post on Facebook. Half the glory of having millions of dollars worth of celeb junk, is putting on a show of primping and preening, just like their idols. And what do those idols, who are famous simply for being famous, represent? A stylized lifestyle of such extravagance, that the Valley kids truly believe it's the status quo to covet it.
Watching the carelessness within which the kids continue to burglarize the celebrity homes, we know it is just a matter of time before they are caught. They hang out in the homes, try on clothes, and refuse to believe they will ever be prosecuted for the thefts, even when a security camera captures footage of them leaving one of the homes, and is released to the public. When their bragging on Facebook and to friends finally results in arrests, we feel little empathy for the "victims" and their loss of a box full of Rolexes. What we do feel is concern for the kids who were living in the dream that having luxury goods is the way to have a wonderful life. Whose fault is it that these vacant personalities are put on pedestals and held in high regard for the most absurd reasons?
In a twist of fate, Nicki, one of the convicted robber kids, spends time in a jail cell next to Lindsey Lohan, one of the celebrities whose junk the robber kids most coveted. It is exactly this kind of interwoven un-reality that highlights exactly how the celebrities that were burglarized, were also the ultimate lifestyle influences to the kids who robbed them.
In an interview with Elvis Mitchell, Sofia Coppola said that she wanted to show the "beige suburban home life," the kids had in Calabasas, in contrast to the glittery, glamorous world of Hollywood. What she doesn't say, is that the median income for a family in Calabasas is approximately $126,000, double the national average and that celebrities Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and the Kardashians, all have homes there. These were kids living financially comfortable lives in the midst of celebrity, where seeing a celebrity at the local Ralph's or movie theater isn't uncommon. They grew up surrounded by a culture that they believed to be the norm, a lifestyle that should be their own and via physical proximity they took on the personas of the people they revered and then imitated.
Another interesting aspect to this story is that Sofia Coppola is no Hollywood outsider herself. Her brother Roman Coppola produced the film and her very famous father; Frances Ford Coppola owns American Zoetope the film's production company. While Sofia Coppola grew up in Napa Valley not Hollywood, there is still something ironic about her choice to make a film about a bunch of teenagers desiring to be on the inside of something she herself, was born into with great privilege.
The film ultimately shows the way in which celebrity culture has infiltrated the perception of self, to the point where there is such a loss of personal identity that in this instance, a group of teenagers can barely differentiate the world of luxury they aspire to, and the more normal world within which their lives actually exist.
The film does a good job of storytelling, but it's the sharp moments where the unexpected smashes into the fantasy world of the kid robbers that reveal. One of the most striking scenes in the film, is when after a heist/shopping spree and lots of partying, the kids are driving away, talking and laughing. The young woman driving the car turns to look at her friend in the passenger seat and as she does so, she also looks straight into the camera. We are uncomfortable as we realize that she has taken her eyes off the road for too long and suddenly and loudly, their car is smacked into. It's a startling scene and as the robber kids laugh about it the next day, you can't help but wish it had been as shocking to them as it was to us.