Film: Youth in Revolt

Friends don’t let friends be kleptos. At least that’s what I was told growing up. In the fame-obsessed universe Sofia Coppola explores with clear-eyed empathy in The Bling Ring, however, a thrill-seeking case of sticky fingers at the mall is just a stepping stone to grander, infinitely more brazen misdeeds.

Welcome to Calabasas, Calif. circa 2008. New kid on the block Marc (Israel Broussard) has been taken under the wing of Rebecca (Katie Chang), Asian American queen bee at Indian Hills High School, a dumping ground for underperforming students not-so-affectionately nicknamed “the dropout school.” Seems like Rebecca lacks a G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend), and it seems the quiet loner who looks like Glee‘s Cory Monteith – only cuter – and shares with her a penchant for keeping up with celebrities’ personal lives will do just fine. Rebecca takes advantage of his inferiority complex – “I never saw myself as an A-list looking guy,” he says at one point – and off they go clothes “browsing.” Rebecca walks out of a boutique with an designer item she didn’t actually pay for. Because how much fun would that be? Marc knows right from wrong, but he goes along for the ride.

Not long after, Marc tells his new bestie that Paris Hilton will be in France for Fashion Week, and thus out of town. You roll your eyes when she suggests breaking into her mansion, because what’s two Bonnie & Clyde wannabes against an elaborate security system? Coppola cuts to the next scene, in which the kids just opening a doorknob and strolling into Hilton’s Beverly Hills residence. Hollywood stars’ disregard for locking their homes is one of the eyebrow-raising findings in Nancy Jo Sales’ Vanity Fair article, “The Suspect Wore Louboutins,” on which The Bling Ring is based.

Marc’s a nervous wreck throughout most of the ordeal. You can tell he’s good people because he closes a closet door after Rebecca leaves it open. Rebecca’s found her own personal Xanadu. (It helps that Coppola shot every Hilton residence sequence in Hilton’s actual residence.) Soon, the duo’s roping in some of Rebecca’s friends, including Nicki (Emma Watson, tearing into the role with gusto), whose mother kicked her out for allegedly catching her smoking OxyContin and is now living with Laurie (Leslie Mann, hilarious), who lives her life adhering to the positive-thinking tenets of The Secret.

Soon Marc and the girls are coming back to Paris’ for more pillaging. Nicki even gets to pole dance inside one of the extravagantly furnished rooms. (Yes, Hermione secretly wanted to be an exotic dancer.) And Coppola captures the morally dubious slippery slope the kids are on as they stealthily break into other celebrity homes without judging them…even when they drive off in a convertible Porsche Carrera S belonging to one of their “victims.” (At Megan Fox’s they find a gun inside a box. I couldn’t help wondering if she’d bought it after the way Michael Bay treated her on the set of the second Transformers.) Coppola captures the thrill of the hunt without losing sight of the consequences of her characters’ behavior. Curiously, she changed all the teens’ names except for Rebecca’s, whose real-life counterpart is called Rebecca Lee.

Ably aided by cinematographers Christopher Blauvelt and the late, great Harris Savides (Gerry, Zodiac), Coppola opts for a bleached out look that feels just right. In one masterful sequence, she stages the burglary of Hills star Audriana Patridge’s mansion by placing the camera outside the home and allowing it to unfold in real time in a single uninterrupted shot. (The film is dedicated to Savides, and it’s a worthy tribute.) If there’s one misstep in The Bling Ring, it occurs in the very last scene, in which a character addresses a talk show audience and promotes her website. Coppola clumsily underlines the cult-of-popularity potshots the film had dealt with earlier with much more intelligence and subtlety. Thankfully, Coppola shrewdly chooses to chronicle most of the events from Marc’s point of view, and Broussard, in an understated yet sneakily affecting turn, embodies the film’s conscience and heart.

Coppola’s strongest asset in The Bling Ring is the sense of balance she brings to depicting the Hollywood Hills burglaries of 2008-09, subject matter that could easily resulted in a gleefully amoral romp or a heavy-handed message movie. She’s made a meditation of our celeb-obsessed youth culture that’s great dishy fun but also dares to take its themes seriously.

Seriousness pretty much goes out the window from the get-go in The Kings of Summer, this weekend’s second teens-acting-up movie release. The playful, disarmingly breezy theatrical feature debut of TV director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Funny or Die Presents…) asks what happens when hapless teen Joe (Nick Robinson) fed up with living under his widowed dad Frank’s (Nick Offerman) iron thumb decides to go off in the woods with best friend Patrick (Gabriel) and pint-size weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias), build a house and live off the land. Cue the ludicrous but amusing Boston Market product placement.

The Kings of Summer is one of those indie comedies that’s a tad too aware of its preciousness. Working from a clever screenplay by Chris Galletta, Vogt-Roberts does his darnedest to charm the socks off his audience. He’s trying too hard. The film is at its best when the filmmakers kick back and let the boys be boys. Galletta mistakenly thinks he needs to introduce a love interest in order to mix things up narrative wise, but even with the winning Erin Moriarty (The Watch) playing her, the role of unattainable dream girl Kelly amounts to little more than a plot device, a superfluous story wrinkle this light-hearted film did not really need.

Ninety minutes of squeaky-clean suburban kids horsing around might seem some viewers’ idea of a waste of time at the movies, but once you settle into Vogt-Roberts whimsical wavelength it’s pretty hard to resist this breath of fresh air. Audiences looking from a time out from the aggressive smashups in the current tentpole titles – yes, Man of Steel, I’m looking at your headache-inducing path of destruction – could do a lot worse than allow this summertime bauble to wash over them.

The Kings of Summer opens Friday at Regal South Beach. That same day, The Bling Ring asks, “What would Lindsay do?” at several area theaters.

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