“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”
– Dolly Parton
The surest sign that one is getting older is one’s need to criticise younger generations. It doesn’t matter what new strides are made, what innovations are created, what revolutions are fought – the new kids will always be thought of as having missed out on something because they were “born too late”.
“Oh sure,” the older person thinks, “they might be more progressive and tolerant in towards other races, religions, sexual orientations, etc., but with that that ‘tolerance’ comes a loss of the moral code that made mine and previous generations what they were. We might not have been as accepting, but that’s because we were protecting what was important.” At face value, this is, ofcourse, the rallying call of an unrepentant bigot angry that s/he is no longer part of the zeitgeist.
On closer examination, there might be a little something to the argument. Yes, kids today have more at their disposable than their parents could ever have dreamed, but you have to admit, their priorities are in a really questionable place. If the idols of a time are indicators of a generation’s moral compass, then it doesn’t say much about the kids of today who put all hopes and dreams on flash-in-the-pan pseudo-celebrities. Don’t get me wrong: attention-seekers are as old as humanity itself. And public worship of dubious individuals – from Jesse James to Roxy Hart – only increases with advances in technological communication.
But in the ‘90s there seemed to be a more gradual integration of tabloid “journalism” into legitimate news. As ‘90s teens, our idols were iconoclasts and individualists. But we couldn’t help but notice that cheap celebrity scandal began to make its way to the front pages just as often as world events. Stories about Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbit, and Amy Fisher now shared space with stories the Oklahoma City Bombing, strife in the Middle East, and the shootings at Columbine. When the front page is reporting a sex scandal involving the President of the United States and his intern, then all bets are off.
This coincided with the rise of reality television and new competition shows in the 2000s. Say what you will about The Real World now, but in the ‘90s the show, it can be argued, was an unpretentious – and, at times, painfully unflattering – look at Gen-Xers that was both illuminating and entertaining. Sure, the footage was edited to make each person come off in a specific light, but the show in its early incarnation (particularly of its first four seasons) was a documentary series, rather than a reality series. And that which was documented was that Generation X was guaranteed nothing. Not fame, not recognition, not even acceptance – in a decade of great economic prosperity and social strides, the youngsters due to run the world had no idea what to do with it.
But the youngsters of the next decade decided rather quickly: they wanted to be famous, no matter how. With new technology allowing for instant, continuous access to one’s life, the new generation of “Millenials” figured they’d give that access to random strangers. What did it matter that someone you didn’t know could know all about you? Atleast you were known. Teen pregnancies, mediocre singing abilities, and the sex tape – notoriously one of the most scandalous hybrids of modern technology and personal intimacy – were now fast tracks to stardom. Because no one is known unless you know everything about them.
And whenever someone tried to regain a modicum of privacy, they were considered selfish. How dare they not allow the public unfiltered access to their lives at all times. Aren’t they entitled? Don’t they know all your secrets? Aren’t they your friends, these countless strangers?
The line has been blurred, and it was only a matter of time before someone took their obsession with the trappings of fame to such a degree that they truly go for the road less travelled: just steal it.
Marc (Isreal Broussard), a somewhat introverted teen with fashion sense, has just transferred to a new highschool in affluent Southern California. Almost instantly, he falls under the wing of Rebecca (Katie Chang), a charismatic girl who shares his fixation with the rich and famous. When Marc mentions that a friend of his has gone out of town with his family, Rebecca convinces him to take her to the house, where the two sneak in and Rebecca helps herself to a few personal items. And a car.
Although Marc objected to breaking-and-entering, he couldn’t deny how much of a rush he got from doing so. After learning that Paris Hilton will be out of town, the two decide to break into her mansion and help themselves to whatever’s available. This begins a string of surprisingly innocuous burglaries that will eventually include the pair’s friends Nicky (Emma Watson), her sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien). Because how would someone-who-has-everything ever notice when something goes missing?
There are certain phrases thrown around so often that they eventually lose all meaning: “innovative”, “revolutionary”, “groundbreaking”. These terms used to signify great strides and achievements of the species, but now they’re often attached to well-worn recipes on cooking shows. This has led to the use of phrases that tend to be oxymoronic (“instant classic”) and hyperbolic (“once in a lifetime”). One such phrase is “the book/film/album that defined a generation”. The idea that any one piece can fully encapsulate an entire generation is ludicrous, and the idea that someone would recognise said definition so early – when such a distinction could only be determined by hindsight – is myopic.
I bring this up because while I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Bling Ring the definitive film of a generation, it’s certainly one of them. It’s definitely worth considering alongside The Social Network as an impressive and entertaining examination of contemporary youth. Whereas that film – or rather its script – can, at times, come off as Aaron Sorkin’s mean-spirited condemnation of internet culture, this film Sofia Coppola’s fly-on-the-wall document of rich (mostly) White kids whose standards and priorities only extend so far. To her credit, she also sidesteps the ripped-from-the-headlines sensationalism of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine (Kids, Ken Park).
With this film Coppola’s skills are far more honed than they’ve ever been. If her debut The Virgin Suicides was represented her “playing it safe” (in the sense that visually and narratively it resembled most other films, nothing distinctive), Lost in Translation a successful experiment in minimalism, and the two follow-ups as her trying to top herself (Marie Antionnette has moments of brilliance, but Somewhere comes off as pretentious), then The Bling Ring represents an artist who has found her own style. Though the film mostly adheres to a linear narrative, it never talks down to the audience or holds their hands through the more experimental moments. One particular sequence, lasting four or five minutes, involves Marc and Rebecca breaking into the Hollywood Hills mansion of reality star Audrina Patridge. The sequence is shot entirely from half-a-mile away in a near-static shot that zooms in so subtly, you almost don’t notice the camera has moved at all. We only see the two running around the house, lights illuminating each room. The only sound is the distant, muffled noise of downtown LA.
And what a sound it is. The film opens in silence as our group sneak into the home of Orlando Bloom. Barely a sound is heard until Rebecca looks around the empty house and says “Let’s go shopping.” We are then immediately greeted with the opening chords of MIA’s “Bad Girls”, the perfect theme song for a story of materialistic faux rebellion. Indeed, watching a bunch of rich young White kids (although Rebecca is half-Asian) sing along to the music – including Rick Ross, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean, amongst others – as if the anthems of these multimillionaires were somehow counter-cultural is one of the film’s best jabs. Don’t get me wrong: I love Kanye and Frank Ocean. Point in fact, Coppola’s choice of music doesn’t suffer from the forced anachronism of Marie Antoinette, but does have a playlist just as effective as the one in that film.
She’s also helped by an incredibly effective cast comprised mostly of newcomers. Israel Broussard’s Marc is the closest thing the ensemble cast has to a main character. He’s never explicitly identified as Gay, but given non-sexual affinity for Rebecca – and his favourite pilfered item being a pair of pink highheeled pumps – one can read between the lines. Teen actress Katie Chung’s Rebecca is pitch perfect. More often than not, the creators of teen films and television will make the “queen bee” into some strange moustache-twirling Stepford wife. Chung and Coppola wisely make the decision to keep Rebecca realistic, thus making her more appealing. Yes, she’s shallow and encouraging larceny amongst her friends, but who didn’t want to be one of the popular kids when they were in school; whether you liked them or not?
Not to be overlooked is Emma Watson as Nicky. As Watson continues to venture away from the kiddie-film confines of Hogwarts, she is slowly proving herself to be a talented actress. Having made her name by playing everyone’s favourite smart girl is just as effective playing a media-happy airhead. Nicky seems to want to be caught just so she can have the opportunity to have her face on camera and spin a bullshit line painting herself as the victim. A future in politics awaits her. Her sister Sam is played by Taissa Farmiga, younger sister of Vera, and their mother is played by Leslie Mann in a performance that has gotten little acclaim, but is scene-stealing. Fond of empty advice tomes like The Secret, she’s blind to her daughters’ criminal activities, but proud of them for asserting themselves and socialising. At one point she uses Angelina Jolie – philanthropist, actress, and UN ambassador – as example of someone her girls should admire. But when she asks them what they admire about her, they unironically answer “her husband” and “her hot bod”.
If I haven’t pointed out already, let me now emphasise that the film is just as hilarious as it solemn. By not wagging a finger at the characters, nor exploiting them for titillation, Coppola allows to come off as real kids rather than straw men for an argument about the “tragedy of today’s youth”. Equally entertaining and thought-provoking, this is one of the best films of the year.