The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola’s acerbically arresting fifth feature, is a tasty contradiction: a clear-eyed, empathetic look at people the movie doesn’t even pretend you can like. It’s a true-life drama of American youth culture gone mad. Based on a 2010 Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, the film tells the story of a pack of L.A. teenagers (four girls and one boy) who in 2008 began to break into the homes of their celebrity idols (like Lindsay Lohan and Rachel Bilson) to steal their clothes, shoes, and jewelry. We see them troll the Web to find out which stars are going to be out of town, and they then sneak in easily, climbing over security fences. Once inside, they basically go shopping. They rifle through designer dresses, find roomfuls of necklaces, and get to Valhalla when they reach the sacred chamber where Paris Hilton keeps her shoes.
The characters are presented as a new species of mutant. They care about nothing — nothing! — but fashion, star gossip, consumer goods, and the way these things mash together to a grinding hip-hop party beat. But where a lesser filmmaker might have turned the members of the Bling Ring into warped rebels, Coppola sees that they’re acting out a sociopathic version of the obsessions that now rule far too many of us: They’re the first generation to worship actors purely for being celebrity-endorsement show ponies. Given what a debased view that is, the clever beauty of The Bling Ring is its scandalous yet never mocking tone, its refusal to satirize. For a while, the girls’ personalities seem almost interchangeable, but that’s part of the texture. Katie Chang gives the leader a ripe synthetic glow, and Emma Watson does a remarkable job of demonstrating that glassy-eyed insensitivity need not be stupid. A-