Verdict: well-made thought-provoking docudrama
Based on the real-life story of a group of teenagers obsessed with fashion and celebrity that “burglarize” celebrities’ homes in Los Angeles. What starts out as teenage fun spins out of control, in the process training a spotlight on some concerning aspects of contemporary culture.
- …everybody on the island
Was somebody from TV.
And there was a beautiful view
But nobody could see.
Cause everybody on the island
Was saying: Look at me! Look at me!
(from ‘Language is a Virus’ by Laurie Anderson)
This song was not in the soundtrack of The Bling Ring, but it could have been, so aptly does it describe the strange world in which this sorry tale occurred. The strange world is Hollywood, and the sorry tale is that of a group of teenagers who burgled – or in the parlance of that world, “burglarized” – the houses of the rich and famous, displayed their ill-gotten booty on social media, were convicted and served time.
Writer and director Sofia Coppola, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, is no stranger to fame herself, but was fascinated by the story of these children who appeared, in the interview she read in Vanity Fair magazine, to not only be unrepentant, but also to revel in their fame. Her script changes the names of the main players, but uses verbatim dialogue from police records and interviews, and with excellent performances from the actors we are given an authentic look deep into the shallows of a vacuous, self-obsessed culture.
It’s grimly compelling, and the audience is of course implicated, as we are the consumers of the images and textual drivel churned out by the paparazzi and gutter press of the fame industry. Well, not me, really – I had to ask my companion if one of the victims was a real person.
The glossy ideal of the “look at me” lifestyle is presented in documentary style with montages of red-carpet photoshoots and newsreel footage, intercut with recreations of the crimes and dramatic interludes, all framed in first person narratives by two of the characters. These characters, Marc (Israel Broussard) and Nicki (Emma Watson), are the most interesting. The other ringleader, Rebecca (Katie Chang), is a cipher: an egoistic moral vacuum whose blank face reveals no motivation.
Marc is fluent in the psychobabble of school counsellors, but his being able to identify what motivated him to join in the crime spree never enables him to veer from the inexorable path of his downfall. There is a scene where this is made explicit visually, as he and Rebecca drive away from a burglary, and he tentatively questions their actions: the path illuminated by their headlights goes out of focus while the possibility of examining their behaviour and relationship exists, and then snaps back in as they continue on their way.
Nicki is another kettle of bad altogether, as she rationalises her behaviour with spurious pseudo-psychology. That “spurious” may be redundant, but I can’t emphasise enough how lunatic is her home-schooling in The Secret (2006 Oprah-endorsed self-help best-seller).
Which brings me to the subject of the absent parents in this scenario. They’re not actually absent, mostly. They’re physically there, but so dense, so “respectful” of their children’s “rights”, that the kids manage to party till all hours, get wasted and crash cars, and display the spoils of their sorties on Facebook for months, while their parents have no clue what’s going on until the police turn up with search warrants. This kind of cluelessness makes them culpable too, as is the toxic Secret-spouting of the home-schooling mom.
The lackadaisical parenting is one of the things one almost has to suspend disbelief about, along with the ease with which the gang enters the houses of the celebrities – not to mention the fact that Paris Hilton offered her actual house as a location, and the contents of that house. But good grief, it’s all true.
This well-crafted film serves as a cautionary tale about how consumerism, celebrity culture, and social media synergise to create an empty heart when the relentless focus of self-regard is paired with no insight whatsoever.
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