Mainstream teen movies tend to resemble their characters' naivete rather than exploring the more complicated world that surrounds it. Made outside that system, Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring" and Francois Ozon's "Young and Beautiful" premiered at Cannes back-to-back in a serendipitous illustration of multiple alternative approaches.
Coppola has focused on outsiders since her directorial debut, "The Virgin Suicides," but the trio of features she made after that took her away from teen angst and into the realm of stardom. "The Bling Ring," inspired by the Vanity Fair article about a group of teens in Calabasas, Calif. who burglarized celebrity homes, consolidates the thematic interests running throughout Coppola's movies. Yet it's also the director's lightest, unobtrusive work, and makes it possible to both comprehend its characters' limited worldview while considering its vanity from a distance.
At the end a frenzied opening montage, which established a universe of celebrity obsession carried along by the promotional engines of Facebook and TMZ, "The Bling Ring" contains an opening dedicated to the late cinematographer Harris Savides, for whom this project constitutes a final credit. That's a fitting tribute to a movie all about surface appearances. Katie Chang stands out as ringleader Rebecca, a fame-obsessed young woman driven to stalk and eventually infiltrate the private abodes of stars ranging from Paris Hilton to Lindsay Lohan. Initially accompanied solely by the soft-spoken Marc (Israel Broussard), Katie engages the interests of several other like-minded teens from upper class backgrounds, including the spacey Alexis (Emma Watson, who capably sheds her fragile "Harry Potter" with a substantially less likable persona) and the disaffected Chloe.
The kids show little investment in the possible ramifications of their actions, partly because the ubiquity of celebrity culture allows them to take it less seriously. By observing their attraction to a bottomless scheme and then watching as various repercussions play out, Coppola presents a smart cross-examination of the impact of media exposure on fickle young minds. While the ambitions of its young thieves often blur together and lack precise definition, "The Bling Ring" is the director's breeziest work, allowing the story to glide along with the ease of a heist movie. A slo-mo shot of the gang walking down the street wearing their pilfered clothes, set to Kanye West's "POWER," briefly allows us to enjoy the stolen luxury along with them.
"The Bling Ring" is a distinctly 21st-century tale, its protagonists empowered by the latest technology around them. Celeb-tracking blogs like Dlisted allow them to track the movements of their targets; Marc pulls up Paris Hilton's address with the ease of a Google search. When Coppola made "The Virgin Suicides" in the late nineties, her despairing characters were marooned in boring suburbia with no simple escape save for death. "The Bling Ring" stars transcend the bland restrictions of their upscale homes by plugging into virtual ones inherently more exciting -- and yet a lot scarier for the same reasons.
Ozon's young heroine in "Young and Beautiful" also capitalizes on internet empowerment in the service of realizing her desires. In the case of the nubile 17-year-old played by Marine Vacth, escape arrives in the form of online prostitution. After losing her virginity one tame summer, she heads back home eager for further exploration -- and finds it in a series of sleazy hotel room encounters while keeping her doting mother and curious stepfather in the dark.
Importing the voyeuristic angle of his previous feature "In the House" into more sordid territory, Ozon structures "Young and Beautiful" within the constraints of four seasons, each one concluded with a pop song set to shot of his young lead grappling with the fallout of her poor decisions. At times a rich, intimate observation of emerging sexuality, the movie also maintains a quiet, observational rhythm that peaks around wintertime when things grow dark for the character and then more or less watches her grow up.
Though undeniably intelligent, "Young and Beautiful" would lack a compelling center were it not for Vacth's fascinatingly ambiguous turn, which shifts between aggressively seductive displays, reckless excitement and solemn regret. She has the look of a young Jessica Chastain in the breakthrough role she never received. As for Vacth, her complex range of mannerisms illustrate the degree to which she feels out of place in any world except the seedy one she creates for herself. She would feel at home with the "Bling Ring" thieves, one of whom expresses a need "to be hot, but not desperate." If these movies are as true-to-life as they appear, nobody walks that line with much success.
"The Bling Ring": B
"Young and Beautiful": B+