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Shadowy figures circle a glass-walled house. They find an unlocked door and enter; once inside, they head straight for the bedroom. Sleigh Bells’ “Crown on the Ground” — scrunched guitar and speaker-wrecking drums — kicks in. The figures’ faces are now visible; they’re high school kids — several girls and a boy. They open the door of the bedroom closet and start grabbing necklaces, shoes and purses.
This is the first scene of “The Bling Ring,” Sofia Coppola’s unvarnished and occasionally problematic account of a string of burglaries committed by LA teenagers in 2008 and 2009. The opening credits identify “The Bling Ring” as “based on actual events,” instead of using the more common phrase “based on a true story”; this might seem like a minor distinction, but it’s an important one, because “story” implies a certain structure and viewpoint. Coppola’s approach to the subject is largely impartial; depending on the viewer, this can seem refreshing or off-putting.
Katie Chang and Israel Broussard star as the Ring’s leaders, Rachel Lee and Frank Prugo, here renamed Rebecca Ahn and Marc Hall. Rebecca and Marc meet at an alternative high school in Calabasas, and soon become close friends. Thrill-seeking petty thefts lead to burglaries and joyrides. At first they steal from neighbors and acquaintances, but soon begin to target celebrities, including Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson and Paris Hilton, whose house they are able to burglarize repeatedly without being noticed. Scouring gossip blogs for information, they wait until their targets are out of town to strike.
Rebecca and Marc’s “gang” quickly expands to include Chloe (Claire Julien), Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Nicki (Emma Watson), a stand-in for the group’s most notorious member, Alexis Neiers. Chang, Broussard, Julien, and Farmiga all deliver uniformly strong, naturalistic performances; Watson, however, is “The Bling Ring“‘s premier scene-stealer. She plays Nicki as a sort of social mutant, the product of vapid New Age parenting irradiated with near-lethal doses of tabloid culture — less a personality than a collection of wants in search of immediate gratification.
The movie’s structure is programmatic; the gang party, then rob, then party, then rob, over and over. There’s not much in the way of narrative progression; like Coppola’s under-appreciated “Somewhere” (2010), “The Bling Ring” is more interested in describing a state of being — the mild numbness which comes with living at a safe distance from anything resembling hardship. The Bling Ring steal several million dollars in jewelry and clothes, most of which they keep for themselves; not content with being merely wealthy, they desire the lives of the super-rich. Regardless of how much money and comfort you have, there’s always someone to envy.