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The most iconic moment of Sofia Coppola’s 2013 satirical comedy “The Bling Ring” arrives at the 27-minute mark. Nicki Moore (Emma Watson) is smoking a joint in a friend’s room while trying on designer clothing. She has recently learned that her friends Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Marc (Israel Broussard) have broken into Paris Hilton’s home and stolen shoes and handbags. Nicki, chronically impatient and desperate for attention, turns to her friends and says, “I wanna rob.” Watson’s delivery has all the lackadaisical ignorance of a five-year-old asking for too many sweets. Here’s a teenage girl so obsessed with the rich and famous that she’s oblivious to the illegal implications of what she’s saying. It’s one of the great line readings of the last decade and the perfect microcosm of Coppola’s study of teenage disconnection.
“The Bling Ring,” now streaming on Netflix, world premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival to mixed reviews. Coppola’s script was an adaptation of a flashy Vanity Fair article about a group of teenagers who robbed the homes of Hollywood celebrities. The source material, plus the involvement of up-and-comer A24 (fresh off the hypnotic debauchery of “Spring Breakers”), suggested “The Bling Ring” might be a sensationalistic dive into fame-obsessed youth — Coppola’s 21st century “Marie Antoinette.” But that’s not the movie she delivered. “The Bling Ring” feels oddly calm and dispassionate during its 90 minute running time, as if Coppola made a crime movie but removed the energy and tension. The film Coppola made isn’t fun or exciting; it’s cold and detached and it fundamentally understands what it feels like to be a disconnected teenager.
Disconnection runs rampant through “The Bling Ring,” so much so that even the eponymous gang doesn’t actually appear to be friends. The vapid Rebecca befriends Marc because he’s new in school and will go along with her illegal schemes just to fit in. Marc is disconnected from himself, a gay teenager who is closeted to his parents but can be himself in Rebecca’s pseudo-glam world. Party girl Chloe (Claire Julien) is only around because she knows a promoter who can get everyone into nightclubs populated by Paris Hilton. Nicki is a cellphone-attached zombie who only comes alive when she can occupy the far outskirts of Hollywood celebrity life. She’s so disconnected that the outskirts feel like the epicenter.
Coppola matches the disconnect among her protagonists in her visual approach, which forces a distance between the viewer and the characters. To watch “The Bling Ring” is to be removed from the subjectivity of its teenagers. Working with cinematographer Harris Savides, Coppola often holds the camera from afar and without movement, a filmmaking choice that makes “The Bling Ring” an observational watch and not an experiential one. Coppola blocks an emotional connection from forming between the viewer and her characters, which robs even the film’s most eventful moments from feeling essential.
Take Marc’s first criminal act with Rebecca, a nighttime crusade outside of a high school party in which the two steal money from unlocked cars. The scene feels painstaking in its normalization of what is surely an anxiety-inducing event for Marc. The camera follows the teens without much of a pulse and Coppola relies on diegetic sounds over a score to keep the energy flat. Coppola’s car crime feels as mundane as teenagers walking to school. It’s a risky choice on Coppola’s part, as her visual sense could bore those viewers looking for a rush, but it’s a skillful one in cutting to the core of her characters’ emptiness. The unsettling reality of “The Bling Ring” is how these teens aren’t excited by their actions. They remain soulless through their criminal endeavors, and that’s a tone intensified by Coppola’s visual sense.
Perhaps the most memorable shot in “The Bling Ring” is the long take that captures the teenagers breaking into the home of “The Hills” star Audrina Patridge. Coppola films the robbery through an establishing shot of Patridge’s home. The camera never cuts into the home to follow the action. A slow push creeps toward the home as the everyday sounds of a Los Angeles evening grow louder. The home resembles a dollhouse, the characters small figurines. It’s perhaps the most least involving robbery scene in cinema, but Coppola isn’t here to glorify or empathize the rush of being a teenage criminal. Her lens becomes a critical window to witness the disconnection of her characters.
Coppola ends her film by beating her theme on the nose. Nicki is being interviewed by a reporter and stresses that she wants to be a humanitarian following her arrest for robbery. “There’s a little bit of a disconnect between your positive pursuits and what’s happening now,” the reporter says, calling Nicki out. Following her jail sentence, Nicki is seen in a video interview talking about life in the same jail as Lindsey Lohan. The film cuts to black after Nicki looks at the camera and advertises her new celebrity blog. The character has learned nothing, but Coppola surely has.
“The Bling Ring” is now streaming on Netflix.