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Film bares audacity of bold teen thieves


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In her last two movies —the sublime "Somewhere" and the seductive "Marie Antoinette" — Sofia Coppola has focused her rigorous attention on characters living inside bubbles of privilege, fairy tale precincts where the invisible magic of wealth and power makes wishes come true. Stephen Dorff’s drifting movie star and Kirsten Dunst’s capricious young queen both lead pampered existences of a kind that make them easy objects of envy and resentment, but Coppola examines them with detached, quiet sympathy, refusing to mock or judge. She anatomizes the spiritual conditions of people who might have seemed to be case studies in shallow, carefree materialism.

"The Bling Ring," her new feature, continues in this vein from a different perspective. It is not about the paralysis of having more than you could want, but rather about the addictive thrills of wanting what you can’t quite have and trying to get it. The Southern California teenagers at the center of the movie do not reside in a bubble of money and celebrity, although they are not exactly outsiders either. They can see through the membrane and touch its shiny, thin surface. They can even reach inside.

Rated: R
Opens today at Dole Cannery Stadium 18 and Kahala 8

Mostly rich kids with access to cars, drugs and Internet gossip sites, these rebels hang out at clubs frequented by Hollywood’s gilded youth — at one point Dunst herself floats past their table — and believe that anything not already in their grasp should be. And so they start grabbing, breaking into the surprisingly unprotected homes of celebrities and making off with whatever catches their eye: shoes, dresses, bags, watches, objets d’art, cash.

It is something other than simple greed that motivates these young thieves, whose leader is a reckless, terrifyingly poised girl named Rebecca (Katie Chang). Already hooked on the rush of petty theft, Rebecca is also interested in fame. When she and her new friend Marc (Israel Broussard) pay their first visit to Paris Hilton’s empty mansion, she is not content to grab the expensive stuff lying around. She wants to linger, to chill, to make herself at home.

Rebecca and Marc, who has recently transferred into her San Fernando Valley high school, are the nucleus of a gang that also includes Chloe (Claire Julien), a free-spirited classmate; and Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga), friends since childhood who are home-schooled by Nicki’s mother (Leslie Mann). Their M.O. is simple and, for a surprisingly long while, foolproof. The Internet tells them when a given celebrity — Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox — is away. Security patrols are easily evaded, and doors are never locked.

"The Bling Ring," drawn from an article in Vanity Fair by Nancy Jo Sales, sticks to the contours of a true story. There is a whiff of tabloid incredulity in Coppola’s version, and an occasional crackle of appalled satire. Once the teens are caught, the explanations they offer are as disturbing as the crimes themselves. Nicki, the meanest and most ambitious of the group, views the whole experience as "a learning lesson" that will ultimately help her achieve her goal of leading a major philanthropic organization or "a country, for all I know."

"The Bling Ring" occupies a middle ground between banality and transcendence, and its refusal to commit to one or the other is both a mark of integrity and a source of frustration. The audience is neither inside the experience of the characters nor a safe distance away. We don’t know how (or if) they think, or quite what to think of them. Are they empty, depraved or opaque? Which would be worse?

A.O. Scott, New York Times

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