Sofia Coppola’s film follows a group of teenagers on a robbery spree in California, a tale inspired by real-life events. They step onto the road to fame by breaking into the temple-like houses of their celebrity gods and using their possessions as precious memorabilia and shiny symbols of high social status.
Most of the members of the group are deprived of any personality; communicate in slang and self-help book clichés and are insanely saturated by the most inane content of celebrity gossip and fashion magazines. They navigate through the washed-out world of Baudrillard’s empty referents with impressive ease and swiftness. They are the superficiality of pop culture made flesh; creatures perfectly adapted to the environment in which objects, money, and image mean much more than human relationships. They don’t really bond, love or understand each other. They enjoy dressing up and posing as sex objects but remain as sexual, expressive and original as Barbie dolls. They strive to represent the ideal of celebrity culture while unwittingly exposing its darker dimension – young, thin, beautiful, rich, and as close to what they perceive to be the pinnacle of fame as the keys waiting under the doormat allow them. They are either empty and lost or cold and calculating.
Coppola remains analytical and represents the teenager’s world from an outsider’s perspective. Like Lost in Translation’s Charlotte, Coppola steps back to observe people’s interactions and, as when Charlotte and her husband run into the ditzy actress, reacts with a smirk and a sense of growing alienation. The film represents the teenagers the way Emma Watson plays her character – with conviction and seriousness but also with a slight note of mockery. Her rolling eyes are both the character’s reaction and a comment on the character itself. Her deadpan delivery of the line ‘your butt looks awesome’ encapsulates the duality of the film, in which, as Coppola puts it herself, the human ‘products of that part of culture’ treat the ‘trashy tabloid part of life’ with deadly reverence. As a result, the teenagers become both ridiculous and a power to be reckoned with. With The Secret as their bible and values adapted from Cosmopolitan they make their darkly subverted Disney dream of ‘something more’ come true.
The film is reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s extravaganza ‘I Want Candy’ updated to a modern setting. Despite its overwhelming emptiness, the film remains as dazzling, hypnotic and seductive as a sense of freedom and power, even if illusory, usually is. The soundtrack is impressively fitting and utilized with a confident hand. It compliments the fast pace of the film very effectively and occasionally gives it the quality of a music video capable of inducing an epileptic seizure.
The film is both an apt anthropological study of the consequences of vapid contemporary culture and a sympathetic portrayal of the fall from stolen ‘greatness’. It offers a rich image of a world where privacy is not so much trespassed upon as erased by Facebook, TV coverage and the need to be noticed and admired at any time of the day or night, even while breaking the law and at the price of being caught. It’s smart, observant, infused with a dark sense of humour, a treat for fans of Sophia Coppola and a pleasure to look at, but is possibly hard to stomach for people who don’t enjoy staring into the black hole of celebrity worship or who expect a more explicit commentary on the actions of the characters with a clear-cut approval or condemnation of their choices. Instead, the film shows the teenagers accomplishing what children are best at – uncritically adapting to the environment, emulating the behaviour of others and fighting to be socially recognised. All they want is to be ‘somebody’ and fit into the culture they’re engulfed in. To paraphrase Eminem, who can really blame them, we’re the ones who made them.