Sofia Coppola debuted her new film The Bling Ring at Cannes today, and contrary to early reports, it no longer begins with a quote from Nicole Richie’s Twitter, though it does close to the tune of Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids,” a fittingly on-the-nose croon about privileged youth getting into trouble. The kids of The Bling Ring aren’t super rich, but they’re adjacent to it, growing up in the San Fernando Valley while mimicking the lifestyle of the Hollywood stars who live just over the mountain. Everything changes, though, when these teens find out just how simple it is to ransack a celebrity’s mansion: All you need to break into Paris Hilton’s unlocked home, for example, is a Google search and some moxie. If some of their victims are famous for doing nothing, what’s wrong with the Bling Ringers tapping into that intoxicating vein with the same ease?
Coppola’s fact-based tale starts with Marc (played by newcomer Israel Broussard), an awkward high-schooler who articulates his self-esteem problem in a way that Us Weekly would understand: “I know I’m not ugly,” he stammers, “but I just never saw myself as an A-list looking guy.” His face still bloated by baby fat, Marc aspires to a glamour-gay lifestyle that’s way beyond his reach, which makes him an easy mark for Bling Ring leader Rebecca (Katie Chang), a high-school classmate and petty criminal. Marc is just happy to have a friend to discuss Miu Mius with, but Rebecca sees Marc as an accomplice-to-be, and before long, she’s convinced him to help her break into cars and homes, pilfering them for all the wardrobe enhancements they’re worth. When Marc and Rebecca figure out how easily breached Hilton’s home is, they burglarize it repeatedly whenever the heiress is away — it helps that Hilton’s closets are so overstuffed that she never seems to notice that anything is missing — and the mansion eventually becomes a nighttime playhouse for Rebecca and her friends, including wild child Nicki (a tramp-stamped Emma Watson). They cavort in Hilton’s nightclub room, they steal her jewelry, and they giggle as they flee down her sloping driveway, silhouetted by the lights of Los Angeles and lit up with the addictive, did-we-just-get-away-with-that thrill of theft. Next up on their hit list: the homes of Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan, and Megan Fox.
In a cast stocked mostly with unfamiliar names giving low-key performances, Watson’s supporting role is destined to be the most talked-about: Beyond the “good Harry Potter girl gone bad” angle — we watch her pole dance, smoke heroin, and exhort her 13-year-old sister to crawl through Megan Fox’s doggy door — Watson is clearly having a blast with this character, and she bites down hard on her campy Valley Girl accent. (“This has been a real learning lesson for me,” Nikki vocal-croaks over and over as she defiantly denies any culpability for her crimes.) The character is based on Alexis Neiers, a real-life Bling Ring member who was filming an E! reality show, Pretty Wild, at the same time she was arrested; any devotee of that short-lived camp classic will notice just how many scenes and lines from it Coppola has re-created, though the official source material is a Vanity Fair article, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” by writer Nancy Jo Sales. Even Pretty Wild’s most famous moment — an exceptionally vivid phone freakout where Neiers calls up Sales to complain about her treatment in the press — is referenced in two separate scenes: One where Nikki seethes at her constantly interrupting mom (a hilarious Leslie Mann), and another where she debates whether to wear Louboutins or little brown Bebe kitten heels to court. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Pretty Wild scene in question, drop everything and watch it now; it’s an even better trailer for The Bling Ring than the real thing.)
Coppola likes to cocoon her characters in opulence — whether they’re ensconced in the Chateau Marmont or Versailles — but this is the first time since The Virgin Suicides that this second-generation filmmaker has explored how all that privilege must seem to an outsider. The change in perspective is evident in the way she and her late cinematographer Harris Savides have shot Bling Ring, especially one knockout, one-take sequence where the camera slowly tracks in on Marc and Rebecca as they burgle Audrina Patridge’s mansion. Shot high up in the hills a half-mile from the action, Audrina’s place resembles a clifftop toy house, and as Marc and Rebecca run from room to room, we only hear crickets, coyotes, and copters — the Los Angeles wall of sound. It’s already the shot of the young year.
But does Coppola relate to these outsider characters? She seems notably disdainful of Rebecca, Nikki, and the other female characters; only Broussard’s Marc earns her sympathy. It’s tempting to speculate as to why, and after the movie screened today for the press, that was a popular guessing game: Is Coppola indulging in some mean-girl condescension? Was she kinder to Marc because he’s the only character who truly repented? In any case, her materialistic bad girls get what they deserve, and what they always kind of wanted, too: After they’re arrested, that short walk from the car to the courthouse becomes their version of the red carpet. The paparazzi shout their names. Purloined purses hang limply on their arms. Sunglasses swallow half of their faces. Their lip gloss is perfectly applied.