Film review: The Bling Ring - OMG! Emma Watson and Sofia Coppola's flash mob steal the show

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"Let's go shopping" are the first words we hear in Sofia Coppola's wry and fascinating feature film based on the true story of the Los Angeles teenagers, the "Bling Ring". This is the group which reportedly burgled the homes of various celebrities, Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom and Lindsay Lohan among them.

Coppola is the ideal chronicler of these pampered adolescents' misdeeds. This isn't because of her own celebrity credentials (although they obviously helped – Paris Hilton might not have been so excited about collaborating on the movie otherwise). What makes Coppola so perfect to tell this story is precisely what infuriates many about her film-making style – namely her detachment and emotional coolness. The characters in this film are very familiar to us from celebrity magazines, reality shows and websites such as TMZ. However, Coppola's style is determinedly anti-tabloid. She is more the anthropologist looking in from a distance at her materially minded, fame- obsessed protagonists than she is the gossip columnist, barging in on their lives in search of sensationalism. She is intrigued by everything about their behaviour from the clothes they wear to their favourite clubs and music and their social-networking habits.

Her detached approach is summed up perfectly in one beautifully shot sequence in which the two ringleaders Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Marc (Israel Broussard) burgle a celebrity home. They are filmed in long shot and we see them through the glass walls as if they are exotic animals being observed in a natural history documentary. The home is deliberately made to seem like a doll's house, set against the Los Angeles night sky. (This was the final feature shot by the brilliant cinematographer Harris Savides, who died late last year and who also shot Noah Baumbach's LA-set Greenberg.)

Emma Watson, in a radical departure from Hogwarts stereotyping, is very impressive as the supremely narcissistic and foxy Nicki Moore. She reels off the "oh my Gods!" as if she is a natural-born Californian and delivers lines like "your butt looks awesome" with such conviction that we're never quite sure whether she is playing her part tongue in cheek or not.

Throughout the film, Coppola shows an understatement worthy of Evelyn Waugh's satirical Hollywood-set novel, The Loved One. The characters here behave – at least in outsiders' eyes – so strangely anyway that there is no need for any rhetorical flourishes or lurches toward melodrama. The director doesn't judge them. She leaves us to make up our own minds, too, about the Marie Antoinette-like excesses of Paris Hilton's wardrobe. One of the most comic ironies is the celebrities' utter obliviousness to the fact that their possessions are being stolen. They have so much stuff anyway and the Bling Ring never takes enough for it to be too obvious what has gone missing.

If the film (and the Vanity Fair article that inspired it) are taken as the measure, these celebrities pay very little attention to personal security. They leave their house keys under the mat, their wallets in their cars and they tell all their fans when they are going to be out of town. If you want to know where they live, you just type their names in a computer and up the address pops online.

As in Larry Clark movies, there is a huge divide here between the adolescents and their parents, who are only seen fleetingly and largely leave the children to their own devices. "At least I don't look like I am 35" is the most damning insult the kids can offer each other. The one mom (Leslie Mann) we do encounter is so flaky and has such strange ideas about religion, celebrity and home schooling that the teens seem almost level-headed by comparison.

In their sunglasses, high heels and dresses (mostly taken from Paris Hilton's wardrobe), the young burglars look so poised and sophisticated that we don't realise their age. Only when the authorities catch up with them does it become apparent how young and vulnerable they actually are.

In a subculture where youth, affluence and looks mean so much, there are subtle but important distinctions. Rebecca (Chang) is good looking and well-off... but not quite as good looking and well off as the people she steals from and wants to be like. Marc likewise has an inferiority complex. They are students together at a school for troubled teens but we're given little clue what difficulties they've endured. There are fleeting references to Bonnie and Clyde. An obvious difference is that these renegades don't shoot anybody. Nor does their unhappiness (if indeed they are unhappy) manifest itself in James Dean-like fits of rebelliousness or violence. They are rebels with a cause – namely to acquire as much designer clothing and footwear from their celebrity idols as they can.

It would have been all too easy for Coppola to mock her teen kleptomaniacs. She can't resist a few subtle digs at their preoccupations – the way they talk about launching their own line of fragrance one moment and saving Africa the next and their obsession with always being noticed. (The broadcasting of the surveillance footage of their burglaries gives them the exposure that Paris Hilton and co enjoyed as a matter of routine. They are also delighted when they are noticed by the celebrities whose houses they ransacked.) However, even if the Bling Ring did make off with an estimated $3m in high-end goods, they weren't exactly a ruthless international gang.

Coppola seems intrigued, baffled, exasperated and amused by them in equal measure. She doesn't have any big moral message to impart about their behaviour. Her film plays as a case study as much as it does as a drama. The emotional temperature may be low but The Bling Ring has the same nuance and sly observation that made Coppola's earlier films Lost in Translation and Somewhere so distinctive.

The Bling Ring (15)

Sofia Coppola, 90mins

Starring: Emma Watson, Taissa Farmiga, Israel Broussard, Katie Chang

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