I suppose that when I think of films about teenagers, I think of those films that play to their self-involved fantasies of acting out — films with clever scripts where teens get the better of the adults and engage in witty verbal sparring. These are films based on established (and establishment) literary sources such as might be studied at school (Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You or Easy A, for example). Occasionally, as with Brick (2005), the source text is a more ‘grown-up’ film genre (in that case, the hardboiled detective flick), but wordplay remains key.
But then there are those films, like this past year’s Spring Breakers, which seem to put teenagers and their behaviour under a magnifying glass, like a mould culture preserved in agar jelly, beautifully curated and preserved yet strange and distant. Not that I’m comparing director Sofia Coppola’s style directly to that of Harmony Korine, but the two films have some genetic matter in common. Both directors have been observing this strangeness for years, Coppola’s signature look being a sort of woozy, pastel-hued haze of Californian sun dappled through airless modernist cubes of Los Angeleno domestic architecture.
Coppola’s youthful characters hardly display any dazzling linguistic inventiveness. The kids are at their most reflective in the framing interviews with Vanity Fair (whose story is the basis for Coppola’s script), but for the most part they speak in the language of the Facebook updates we periodically see on screen — “wow!” “oh my god!” “fuck!” “woah!” — not least when poking around people’s homes. Their texts are not Jane Austen, William Shakespeare or Nathaniel Hawthorne, but gossip magazines and websites like TMZ.com. Which celebrity has been banged up on DUI charges, who is wearing Miu Mius and who Louboutins to an awards ceremony, and how they’re making mistakes with their hair extensions. These images flick across the screen as if swiped past on a smartphone, or clicked through on the web, grainy online footage of reality TV stars such as Audrina Patridge or Paris Hilton (the latter of whom was involved with Coppola’s film). It’s Lindsay Lohan, though, who seems to preside regally, dissipatedly over everything, her style an inspiration for lead character Rebecca (played by Katie Chang), just as her troubled ‘private’ life seems to encapsulate everything rotten about this rarefied existence.
If it’s the lifestyle these kids aspire to — that they are quite literally stealing from the celebrities on whom they dote — then it’s a style in which the characters are filmed. They bask in it, glow with refracted celebrity under the gorgeous lens of late cinematographer Harris Savides (to whom the film is dedicated). None of the famous victims are actually seen in the film, aside from a brief glimpse of Hilton at a club and the grainy internet footage that pops up throughout, but instead it’s the thieving kids who steal the limelight here as the celebrities of Coppola’s film. Aside from Emma Watson — whose real-life counterpart appropriately had a brief flirtation with celebrity — the actors are largely unknowns, which is exactly right: these teens get to be the stars of their own big budget film, they just don’t get to win over adult authority with their wordplay. Or maybe they do.
The discourse the teenagers move so fluently in — gossip sites and social networking — is dominated by their voices and cynically craves their attention. The adult figures glimpsed in the film are even more dumbly incapable of argument (when they’re not wrapped up in the vapid new age speak of Leslie Mann’s Laurie), unable to engage with their kids any more than the kids can with all the material possesions they covet. There’s a strange transference of power between the kids and their parents, just as there is between the kids and their celebrity idols. These teenagers are far from poor, and they operate in world where what you want can be taken — attention craved in a club can be consummated with a selfie uploaded to Facebook, and the cars and homes of the rich can it seems be entered at will with apparently minimal security. If the kids’ willingness to share everything with their peers is in part their undoing, the punishment of the adult world scarcely seems to be of much lasting consequence. This, after all, is a place in which all manner of legal infractions by celebrities are punished with a slap on the wrist or a few days in LA County correctional institutions. At one point, one of the lead girls is involved in a crash while under the influence and immediately afterwards is seen boasting about it and asking after the next party, barely wasting breath to complain about her sentence (picking up litter).
Coppola’s is a film of ravishing surfaces, the effortless-seeming construction of cool credibility, in its fashion, in its look and in its music. It’s in some ways a match of form to content, so viewers should be warned that the plot itself is thin. Marc (Israel Broussard) transfers to a new school, one reserved for drop-outs and underachievers, where he feels out of place and awkward, but soon meets Rebecca, and through her the narcissistic Nicki (Emma Watson) and her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga). Rebecca leads him into petty thieving, which soon escalates into breaking into the homes of absent celebrities. These heists are intercut with interviews of the ‘Bling Ring’ a year later after they’ve been captured, and are punctuated by scenes in their bedrooms, at home and in clubs, where they talk about fashion and celebrities. But it all moves by at a fair clip, the final film clocking in at 90 minutes, and if the heists themselves are repetitive, that seems to be by design. The viewer’s attention is retained by some of the staging, such as the break-in to Patridge’s home, presented in a single steely night-time long-distance take as the two teens move around the various areas of the house, switching lights on and off, and picking up mementoes.
This is another wary portrait of Los Angeles, of disaffected overprivileged kids and their ennui, a familiar theme from Coppola’s films. There’s not much sense of escape from this bitter cycle of fame and crime and obsession, cynically shared by both perpetrators and victims (who are often the same people). It’s hardly a flattering portrait of Los Angeles or of celebrity culture, but at least everyone looks great — that new, more insidious American Dream.
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola (based on the article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales); Cinematographers Harris Savides and Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 7 July and Monday 8 July 2013.