Sofia Coppola’s polarizing crime drama deserves more credit than it’s been given.
Over the course of roughly the last two decades, Sofia Coppola has accomplished quite a bit as a director. She’s emerged from her family’s status as Hollywood royalty to form her own voice in the industry, a voice that is concerned primarily with, and with great dedication to, young and misunderstood women. She even has an Oscar to prove that she’s done this quite well at times.
But not all of her films have been deemed by the masses to be worthy of gold statues. For proof, look no further than the mixed reception to her 2013 film, The Bling Ring. Seen by some (read: me) as a masterpiece, the film was criticized by others for being a superficial and ultimately vapid meditation on millennial entitlement and celebrity obsession.
But I don’t think those critiques tell the whole story of The Bling Ring. To tell the whole story, or at least a considerably thorough story of the film, we need to go back to 1992 and the birth of reality TV.
Reality TV and “Reality” TV
The antecedents for reality TV had been there for years, but it really kicked off with the premiere of MTV’s longest running program, The Real World. From there, a number of similar programs promising insight into the real lives of real people began appearing on television over the next decade or so. Some were good, many were bad, most were unremarkable. Two of the most notable are The Simple Life, Laguna Beach, and its spinoff, The Hills, which began on Fox in 2003 and MTV in 2004 and 2006, respectively. Even before the Kardashians were branded as being “famous for being famous,” Paris Hilton, Heidi Montag, and their various co-stars had provided cultural proof that now more than ever, the traditional routes to stardom were not the only path that one had to take. You didn’t need to be a successful singer or actor, you just needed to be worth watching.
Even if you didn’t watch any of these shows, chances are you were at least peripherally aware of the people on them and some of the events of the series. But there’s one show in particular that I believe fell under the general public’s radar a little too easily: E!’s 2010 series Pretty Wild. The show had a similar set-up to a lot of moderately successful reality shows. It was intended to follow socialite Alexis Neiers and her kind-of adopted sister Tess Taylor (this is a little complicated, but essentially Neiers’s family took Taylor in without formally adopting her) as they navigated the Hollywood lifestyle and their careers as aspiring models. And then, after the pilot had been filmed, Neiers was arrested for her involvement with the real-life “bling ring,” a gang of teens that had been burglarizing celebrity homes in 2008 and 2009.
From there, the season documents Neiers’s journey through the criminal justice system up to where she takes a plea deal and is sentenced to six months in jail. On the more lighthearted end of the scale, the show also chronicles her and Taylor’s social lives, and their relationship with Neiers’s mother, who aims to educate her family according to the teachings of the 2006 self-help book “The Secret.”
If Pretty Wild sounds like it was too crazy to be true, that’s because it was. Neiers would later reveal that the show was a facade and that behind the scenes she was struggling with a drug addiction and living in a hotel, two things that were absolutely never shown in the series.
Like many reality shows, Pretty Wild was never as real as it claimed to be. But under the circumstances of Neiers’s legal battle, and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s intriguing to watch the show and its subjects grapple with situations that no one expected to arise before she was arrested. One of the most notable scenes (and certainly the most meme-able) involved Neiers confronting journalist Nancy Jo Sales over an article written about the real bling ring that Neiers felt didn’t represent her accurately. She believed the article would negatively sway public opinion. The thought process from Neiers and her family, I assume, was that showing the confrontation on the show would portray her as a victim as a way to counteract any damage done by the article.
The article that Neiers was referring to in her tearful telephone conversation was “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” from a March 2010 issue of Vanity Fair. This article became the basis for the script of The Bling Ring, which also lifted quotes directly from Pretty Wild for Emma Watson‘s character, Nicki Moore, Taissa Farmiga‘s Sam Moore, and Leslie Mann‘s Laurie Moore, the fictionalized versions of Alexis Neiers, Tess Taylor, and their mother Andrea Arlington, respectively.
By the late 2000s, reality TV was losing any claim to authenticity as it became clear that the shows were mostly people playing versions of themselves that were constructed for maximum entertainment value. As an outsider to this situation, I couldn’t say the exact degree to which Neiers was complicit in the bling ring burglaries and how much she was acting to appear innocent on Pretty Wild. But the point of all of this is that The Bling Ring, from its origins, was built on a precarious understanding of what constitutes reality.
The Bling Ring
In Sofia Coppola’s fictionalized account of the burglaries, the ringleader of the teenage heist team is Katie Chang‘s Rebecca Ahn. Rebecca’s criminal inner circle includes Nicki and Sam Moore, Israel Broussard‘s Marc, and Claire Julien‘s Chloe. Together, they break into and rob the houses of celebrities such as Paris Hilton and The Hills star Audrina Patridge. Eventually, they are all caught and sentenced to serve time in jail.
On the surface, The Bling Ring satirizes its subjects and their over-the-top obsession with celebrity culture. Watson’s standout performance, in particular, seems to invite audiences to mock Nicki with her valley girl accent and belief that her situation is nothing more than bad karma. Side note: The Bling Ring might have been a bit ahead of its time considering within the last five years the idea of a reckless reality star asserting that they “want to lead a country one day” has turned into a genuine threat rather than a joke.
Additionally, whereas Coppola’s other films are often locked into the perspectives of her protagonists, The Bling Ring floats between several characters, making it difficult to classify someone as the lead, and even more difficult to figure out exactly who we should root for when their friendships dissolve as they are faced with criminal charges.
But Coppola also constructs the film so that the more one is familiar with her characters’ relationship to reality TV, the more one is able to understand them. This is accomplished through several techniques that could initially appear to distance the audience and prevent them from caring about the characters. The film has a non-linear structure, informing us from the beginning that these characters are eventually caught, which removes some of the suspense from the heists.
There are also a number of scenes with characters addressing the camera directly. Sometimes this involves Coppola setting up the camera as if it were a character’s webcam that they are using to record themselves. Other times it’s used as they are speaking directly to the press cameras about the trial. This technique can also be used to distance the audience. Making us aware of the camera makes us conscious of the artifice of the film, so it’s easy to not become invested in the characters.
Another distancing effect Coppola uses is the interview segments with the characters that take place after they are arrested. One such segment begins showing only Marc as he faces the camera and speaks to someone off screen explaining his take on all of the events that have transpired. It’s later revealed that the person he’s speaking to is a fictional journalist based on Nancy Jo Sales, but we don’t learn this for a while. At first, these scenes read as Marc directly addressing and explaining himself to the audience.
These techniques — the scattered timeline, the characters addressing the camera, and the characters speaking to audiences — while distancing in most films, are basic aspects of nearly all reality TV shows. On these shows, events will be shown intercut with scenes of the stars of the show framed in a talking-head shot, like the one Marc is in above, as they explain to the audience what happened during these events. These interview clips, which often come with a heavily implied level of sincerity as many reality shows have rooms designated as “diary rooms” for the characters to record, are an opportunity for one of the stars to explain their motivations in a situation or their opinion on a matter. In a reality TV context, this is intended to make the audience feel closer to the stars of the show and to care for them.
By constructing The Bling Ring in this way, Coppola mimics the look and feel of a reality show. For viewers who are familiar with the grammar of reality TV, it’s rather easy to follow the story and to even become invested in the characters. Don’t get me wrong, even in viewing the film through this lens, Rebecca and her entourage still come off as superficial, but they’re superficial in a more relatable way. Like the characters on screen, millennials watching the movie have grown up familiar with reality TV’s brand of celebrity. There’s an allure to this kind of celebrity, one that is achievable without talent. As Marc says when speaking about Rebecca, “I just think she wanted to be a part of the lifestyle — the lifestyle that everybody kinda wants.”
It should go without saying that I don’t assume everyone who watches reality TV is a millennial, nor do I assume every millennial watches reality TV. But I do think this generation has been inundated with these shows from an early age in a way no previous generation had. As a result, this generation is also best equipped to understand the relationship between The Bling Ring and reality TV that is displayed both in the story and in the construction of the film.
A Film Only Coppola Could Make
It’s not exactly surprising that Coppola chose to take on this kind of story. Her two films prior to this, Marie Antoinette in 2006 and Somewhere in 2010, also explored fame, opulence, and privilege. They, like The Bling Ring, were criticized for indulging in her characters’ celebrity rather than thoroughly critiquing it. With this in mind, a particularly tongue-in-cheek moment in The Bling Ring comes in the opening credits when Coppola’s “Written and Directed by” credit is superimposed over an inventory of jewelry with a necklace that reads “RICH BITCH” placed front and center. Let no one say that Coppola isn’t aware of the critics who cite her surname rather than her films as the reason for her career.
Although she has faced criticism for indulging in, rather than critiquing celebrity, it’s precisely Coppola’s unwillingness to sort her characters into one of two sides by completely indicting them or completely excusing them that makes The Bling Ring succeed. She shows her characters reveling in some of the luxuries that come from the heists, but all the while maintaining a non-linear structure to remind us that this will all come crashing down soon enough. She understands that these characters are victims of a society that has promised them that celebrity is within reach if they can only be worth watching. But the final image of the film, which leaves us with Nicki promoting her website on a talk show, asserts that these victims also possess an incredible amount of privilege that most people who are freshly released from jail could never dream of possessing with a criminal record.
The Bling Ring exists because of the millennial generation’s unprecedented level of reality TV saturation. It both interrogates and appeals to this cultural context, having been constructed to be most accessible to those familiar with the grammar of reality shows. Five years after the film’s release, there are still so many questions to be asked about our 21st century relationship to reality and celebrity. I don’t think anyone, even Sofia Coppola, has all the answers to these questions. But I do think she’s proven herself as the right director to ask them.