The Bling Ring and The East, both of which open in Memphis this Friday, begin in very similar fashion, with video footage — the first ostensibly from a home security system, the other from a handheld camera — of an inter-gender band of outlaws breaking into an opulent home.
What these two title crews do when they gain entrance, though, is very different: The high-school-aged "Bling Ring" is there to "shop," making off with jewelry, clothes, and paintings belonging to the absentee rich and famous. But the young-adult eco-terrorist group "The East" is there to send a message, pouring crude oil into the air vents of an executive responsible for an environmental disaster.
But these similar set-ups aren't the only things these films have in common. Each is also the work of a significant young(ish) female filmmaker trying to tap into the cultural zeitgeist while straddling the indie/mainstream divide.
The Bling Ring is Sofia Coppola's fifth feature as a writer-director, following the seductive debut The Virgin Suicides, the critical/commercial breakthrough Lost in Translation, the punkish, poppy period biopic Marie Antoinette, and 2010's low-key Somewhere. Based on a Vanity Fair article, The Bling Ring tells the true story of a group of Los Angeles high-school wannabes who started breaking into the homes of young starlets and outfitting themselves with the goodies found therein.
These kids live in public, chronicling their busy night lives via cellphone pics and Facebook posts, and they follow the celebs they aspire to be like the same way, eventually using internet reconnaissance to find the homes of stars such as Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Megan Fox and find out when their targets are out of town.
Most of the film is more nonjudgemental document than cautionary tale, as the film shows the thrill of the capers and the fantasy-turned-reality of Paris Hilton's walk-in closet being treated like a boutique. Coppola nails the soundtrack — Sleigh Bells, M.I.A., Azealia Banks, lots of Kanye West — which taps into both the frenzy and potential danger of the youth culture she's chronicling. Among the cast is Emma Watson, the former Hermione Granger, who plays one of the intensely self-involved Bling Ringers with gusto and continues her sure-footed ascent into a post-Potter career, following last year's The Perks of Being a Wallflower and her concurrent cameo in This Is the End. Making a similar break, this time from the work of her producer/director husband Judd Apatow, is Leslie Mann, as Watson's permissive, new-age parent.
The East is Brit Marling's third feature in two years as star and co-writer, following the lo-fi sci-fi Another Earth and the supernatural-or-not? cult expose The Sound of My Voice, the latter, like The East, co-written with director Zal Batmanglij. Together the three films amount almost to their own sub-genre, taking contemporary film-fest-style indie into genre/conspiracy realms.
In The East, Marling is "Sarah," an operative for a secretive private security firm who is sent from her Washington, D.C. home out into the field, posing as an anarchist drifter in order to seek out and infiltrate the eco-terrorist/revolutionary cell "The East," which has vowed, via YouTube clips, to "counterattack" three corporations in the next six months.
Sarah finds her way to the group, led by the trio of Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), Izzy (Ellen Page), and Doc (Toby Kebbell), who have all abandoned privileged backgrounds to fight against what they see as corporate wrongdoing. The story is told from the point of view of the apparently conservative, devout Sarah, with the central drama watching her commitment to her employer and what she thinks is her cause get shaken the deeper undercover she gets.
The East works better dramatically than The Bling Ring, though it isn't without its faults. Coppola's film is perhaps too repetitive. The early infiltrations and party nights have a zip that suggests the experience of the protagonists, but even as the drugs get harder and break-ins get bolder, the later escapades feel like re-runs, the cycle spinning until our outlaw heroes are finally caught. The result is a 90-minute film that feels longer, and an ultimate disappointment for Coppola, who once seemed like a potentially major filmmaker but similarly seems to be spinning her wheels here.
By contrast, The East's not-dissimilar structure seems to develop more, both in terms of plotting and character development, with the stakes constantly prodded into deeper territory. And it works better scene-by-scene, with Marling's initial infiltration creating true suspense. The only disappointment is that the film's resolution ultimately feels both too optimistic and too much the provenance of screenplay trickery.
Still, these are interesting companion pieces that point to divergent paths in contemporary youth culture. These crews both seek to afflict the comfortable, but the Bling Ring are more interested in their own comfort than the affliction. They may use similar tactics against similar targets, but "The East" would no doubt consider their conspicuously consuming younger doppelgängers part of the problem.
The Bling Ring
Opening Friday, June 21st
Opening Friday, June 21st