Filling The Blanks in 2013: “The Bling Ring”

Directed by Sofia Coppola, “The Bling Ring” can only be characterized as weird. As far as I can recall, it seems to have been a fair bit of buzz surrounding this new release from the mind that gave us the phenomenal “Lost in Translation”, but shortly after its Cannes premiere, there was nothing but radio silence.  I failed to see it during the very limited run it received in the UK, and as a result it was only quite recently that I finally caught up with “The Bling Ring”. And there’s something to be said about this particular film.

In short, “The Bling Ring” is a story (somewhat grounded in reality, so I hear) about a group of teenagers living on the outskirts of Los Angeles, who form a gang that burgles houses of high-profile celebrities. And that would probably be it in terms of the synopsis, because there’s not much else going on in “The Bling Ring”, so the film in its entirety plays it shockingly straight. As viewers, we get to follow a bunch of high-schoolers with larger-than-life personalities (portrayed by no-name actors like Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Claire Julien, plus Vera Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa, and Emma Watson, who strangely enough plays a side-line character to the story, even though she must have been the top-billed actor on the project) while they take a shortcut to their ‘American Dream’ by breaking into people’s houses and stealing their designer clothes, jewellery and other knick-knacks.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to draw a parallel between “The Bling Ring” and Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” as they both take on a very uncomfortable subject of contemporary youth and their brain-washed aspirations created by the popular media, tabloids and social networking. Although I seem to remember not receiving “Spring Breakers” very well, as that film takes an extreme stance on the problem and is definitely made to push people’s buttons, now that I saw Sofia Coppola’s two cents, I believe I might want to revisit “Spring Breakers” and take it from a different angle.

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“The Bling Ring” most certainly has something interesting to say about American teenagers and the downward spiral they’re on, although I’m afraid that this problem is of global proportions and it shouldn’t be brushed off as confined to the US middle class. The reliance of (not only) the younger generations on social media, Facebook addiction, or obsessive following of celebrities, who by the way have never done anything besides being famous, cannot lead to anything positive. Quite expectedly, the way people nowadays focus their efforts on making other people perceive them differently can and does warp their perception of the world, aspirations and dreams. And this is where the film-makers could go balls out and provide the much needed commentary. However, I remain unconvinced that “The Bling Ring” has succeeded in that regard. In hindsight, I think “Spring Breakers” might have been more on point, and although it was very uncomfortable to watch, Harmony Korine deserves more credit that I might have given him in the first place.

Sofia Coppola seems to have strayed away from commenting on the problem, and the only thing we see in “The Bling Ring” is how the group of characters gets together, how they google Paris Hilton’s address (or any other celebrity), go for a ‘shopping spree in her closet, steal some cash, and end up in a night club drinking cosmos and taking extremely fake-looking posed selfies. Rinse-repeat… well, up to a point. And this is mostly why I find “The Bling Ring” strange in a way, because I can’t quite tell, whether it is a conceit on Coppola’s part to purposefully show these characters as shallow, despicable young adults, or was it simply a sloppy writing job…

From the very opening shots I found it very difficult to come to terms with the artificial performances and accents, but the more I think about it, I’d be willing to take it as done by design. Now, I am no teenager, but (as frightening it might seem) I can take those performances as only moderately exaggerated and archetypical, because it might just be, how some young people behave nowadays. So, the minute I decided to bench my doubts about the film’s naturalism in performances, I could see its message a bit more clearly. It still is not laid out in the open for the taking, but it doesn’t take much to add two and two together.

Without a doubt, the nihilistic and brainwashed attitude towards life abundant among the younger generations makes for an interesting topic for discussion. In fairness, we need more films (or commentary, in general) on this subject to properly explore this problem, as it is indeed a scary notion to postulate, that today’s teenagers will one day rule this world. As it stands, the society has become so self-indulgent and narcissistic that it’s nigh on impossible to stay unaffected by these obsessions of self-promotion and the constant need of affirmation.

It baffles me how it is no longer enough to live your life, find something you love and do it, find a partner to go through life with, and so on… Nowadays, we need to seek evaluation from our peers by posting every single thing we do on the Internet, as if it was imperative to rub our lives in everyone’s faces. And it doesn’t even stop there, because we no longer really have friends, but merely a list of names, who we want to see the pictures that we post. Add to that the pressure to achieve and ‘be successful’ and you’ll find yourself in a world that finds the characters from “The Bling Ring” quite average.

In my view, the main problem that “The Bling Ring” tries to address, is the gap between our hugely overblown aspirations in life, and are actual aptitude that would never be enough to take us where we want to be. However, in the age of dumbing down the expectations in schools, lowering the bars, or whatever you want to call it, we raise people to grow up with embedded sense of entitlement, and as a result, they will never be capable of noticing and comprehending the fact they most likely will never lead the lives of celebrities. It becomes even more unbearable when you sit down and think about why people like Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan are as famous and followed like goddesses in today’s world, because they are just famous for being famous. Multiply that by thousands of names and all of a sudden, the entire modern society is being founded in bullshit. The question now is, whether the young minds are apt enough to see through all these lies… Because you can’t simply take a short cut to success, even though the tabloids and E! Entertainment would like you to think otherwise.

Sadly, almost none of that commentary is found in “The Bling Ring”, which would be fine, if people like me were the target audience for this film. Well, I don’t really need to be reminded of how shallow the society wants me to be, or how it wants me to navigate my life, so that I’m perceived by my peers in the best way possible. I know that and I don’t care either way, but it’s the young minds on the brink of adulthood who really need that kind of experience and if you count on them going out of their way to find the film’s message, you’re in for a disappointment. It’s just silly to assume that the target audience for “The Bling Ring” will immediately see this film as a mockery of the lifestyle they so crave.

This is where I’m torn on “The Bling Ring”. A part of me wants this film to have a meaning underneath the superficial character development, the bare-bone plot, and strangely artificial performances. But at the same time, I owe it to myself to judge this film based on what it is, and not on what it wants to be. And what it is, is a forgettable attempt at addressing an important issue, because it takes a bit too much digging to get something out of it.

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