Chances are that before seeing Sofia Coppola’s fifth feature, The Bling Ring, you probably already know more or less how you feel about the gang of teenagers who made off four years ago with over $3 million in designer clothes, flashy jewelry, and cold, hard cash from a series of celebrity homes in the Hollywood Hills. In the course of trying to pin down these kids’ motives, it’s easy to play amateur sociologist (blame a culture obsessed with fame for its own sake), economist (blame a system that makes a virtue out of the constant acquisition of material wealth), or philosopher (blame a world—or at least a first world—in which reality has become synonymous with its own reproductions). It’s easier still to come into the film asking what Mike D’Angelo, covering its Cannes premiere for the A.V. Club, left asking: “Who cares?”
That last question is, as Kent Jones suggests in the May/June issue of FILM COMMENT, essentially class-based. But: “Coppola’s films are so specific and carefully observed that they incorporate class. It’s not so much a question of being asked to identify with the plight of the wealthy (as in something like This Is 40), as it is of being confronted with the raw facts of this kind of absurdity and this kind of sadness under these particular circumstances, which the director herself knows in minute detail.” For D’Angelo, Coppola’s attention to the “raw facts” of upper-upper-class existence makes The Bling Ring “amount to little more than a group portrait of exceedingly shallow teens who rifled through the drawers of some equally shallow adults who’ve appeared on television.” To which Jones might argue that the shallowness of the teens matters less than the sensitivity of the portrait.
If Jones praises the The Bling Ring’s extreme specificity, David Ehrlich at Film.com anticipates criticism with an appeal to the film’s universality: “The Bling Ring illustrates how the problems suffered by those we think aren’t allowed to have any can sometimes function as a direct line to the irreducibly human heartaches shared by anyone fortunate enough to live above the poverty line.” Both critics suggest that Coppola, after choosing a subject that invites either knee-jerk cultural criticism or Society of the Spectacle–style pontificating (and after further courting both with some strategically placed montages of Facebook walls and self-conscious selfies), ends up giving us something both broader and narrower than a thesis: a portrait of flesh-and-blood individuals that strikes a chord not in spite of its specificity, but because of it.
Here the question of judgment comes up: if the five teens that make up Coppola’s Bling Ring—among them casual, amoral ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang) and vapid, social-climbing Nicki (Emma Watson)—are meant to be treated as real people as opposed to walking emblems of celebrity-culture-gone-wrong, how should we relate to them? With pity? Amusement? Indignation? At times, Coppola seems to be shooting fish in a barrel: one hilarious, brutally on-the-nose shot shows one gang member’s family preparing breakfast smoothies in a spotless, gleaming kitchen, with a pair of snow-white corgis under one chair and a maid at work in the corner, as the LAPD’s incoming sirens get louder and louder. More often, she lets her antiheroes invite their own ridicule (Nikki’s terrifying monologue on bad karma, in which she announces that “I want to lead the country some day, for all I know”).
Some read Coppola’s distance from her protagonists as a rejection of judgment, a refusal, in Ehrlich’s words, “to settle into a mode [either] of sympathy or critique.” Others read it as just another form of criticism: in a dialogue with Daniel Kasman at MUBI, Adam Cook describes being “struck by Coppola's lack of sympathy for, say, Emma Watson or Katie Chang's character (Rebecca). The only person we're asked to feel for is the male protagonist, who complicity tags along with the girls' self-destructive pursuit.” On the other hand, perhaps Coppola’s willingness to identify her own perspective with that of Marc (Israel Broussard)—who spends most of the film carried passively away by his new friends’ wild abandon—is less a form of sympathy on the director’s part than just another bid at maintaining distance.
In contrast to Spring Breakers (with which Coppola’s film has been pervasively compared, both fairly and unfairly), The Bling Ring never tries to make us feel the appeal of its protagonists’ misdeeds. We’re rarely attracted to the film’s burglary scenes the way at least some of us are attracted to Spring Breakers’ orgiastic, neon-lit raves and gun-toting Britney Spears dance-alongs. Coppola is after something dreamier, more reflective, and decidedly less uncomfortable: Jones cites a memorable shot of “Marc and Rebecca wander[ing] through what is supposedly Orlando Bloom’s open-plan house at night, viewed from an exquisite remove several tiers above in the Hollywood hills, the sounds of howling coyotes and wailing police sirens quietly echoing in the distance.” The danger is that if we’re never, or rarely, implicated in watching the crimes depicted, we’ll find it harder to detach ourselves from whatever assumptions we brought with us into the theater regarding these kids and their world. (Although, to be fair, it’s much easier to visualize the appeal of partying—so much of which can be reduced to gesture, movement, color and light—than that of consumerism, wealth or fame. And, for what it’s worth, the club scenes in The Bling Ring are nearly as squirmily pleasurable as Spring Breakers’ poolside debauchery.)
At times, though, Coppola finds her own, detached ways of investing us in the world onscreen, most often through moments of precise, sensitive observation that render judgment not so much impossible as irrelevant. Jones cites “the air of indeterminacy and fuzzy motivations” that surrounds Rebecca’s initial car burglaries: “every action seems to be on the verge of not occurring.” Kasman lovingly describes “a jump cut into a luxury car cruising the beach, camera planted like a passenger in the back along with the neophyte high-schooler, the perfect blonde female driver singing along to Rick Ross's booming ‘9 Piece’ on the car's speakers, the girl turning around looking at him and us in joy at the groove of the tunes, her knowledge of the lyrics, her total conquest of a lifestyle not her own but made hers.” Then there’s the way Marc nervously adjusts his flannel shirt before his first day at school—to button or not to button?—that in a few seconds perfectly captures an all-too-relatable kind of teenage self-doubt; or the way Nikki looks just past Coppola’s lens during one late-night clubbing binge and licks her lips as if all the cameras in the world were focused just on her.
These moments are not very common in The Bling Ring, but that, I guess, is what makes them so valuable, and so effective at upending our assumptions regarding which stories—and which people—deserve a place on the screen.