After watching Sofia Coppola's searing portrait of excessive vapidity and consumerism in the Los Angeles-set film "The Bling Ring," it's almost impossible to exit the theater without feeling a profound sense of emptiness. This story of five impulsive kids who spend their nights breaking into the homes of the rich and famous is the most extreme example of what a steady diet of TMZ and gossip rags can do to the teenage mind.
And though it plays as a cautionary tale to any parent, to those of us trying to raise children in and around Los Angeles, it unspools like a horror movie.
Is it possible to create loving, empathetic, moral children in a world that places such a high value on material wealth and high-priced goods? Is good parenting enough when the outside influences are so strong and so alluring? Those were the questions in my head as I left the theater, and I know many parents felt the same after they watched Emma Watson's character and her superficial cohorts get their jollies by burglarizing celebrities' homes.
Director James Ponsoldt, who will be releasing his upcoming film "The Spectacular Now" via A24, the same distributor as "The Bling Ring," was chilled to the core by the movie that was based on an actual crime spree.
"My wife and I were absolutely horrified. My wife runs a school here in L.A. and it's something we talk about all the time. On a certain level I love Los Angeles, but we had the exact same thought, 'Can we actually raise kids in this city?'," said the Georgia native. "I think ['Bling Ring'] is a story about the way we socially condition our children to be sadists and to be absolutely callous kids who don't experience empathy the way kids of previous generations did."
Of course, most teens seeing the film aren't going to be enticed to start a crime ring of their own. But do they see such behavior as exciting, aspirational even? Coppola, no stranger to the world of excess, puts no judgment on the story's subjects and in fact makes it clear in the film that their entitled behavior is not sustainable — or even desirable, despite its shiny exterior. Some teens at least have picked up on that message.
Milli Miereanu, 17, jumped at the chance to see "The Bling Ring" when it opened at her local multiplex recently in Woodland Hills. She and her friends are fans of Coppola's — they specifically love the fashion and opulence of the director's 2006 film "Marie Antoinette," and they were interested this time in a movie set in their own backyard.
"I think at first it all looked really cool," said Miereanu, a high-school senior from Woodland Hills. "Visually, it was really appealing: all the jewelry, gorgeous dresses and the shoes. But once you see them go to jail and you hear how they talk — they all sound so stupid. They sound so dumb, I couldn't handle it."
To some who grew up in the suburban confines of Calabasas and Agoura Hills, just a few years ahead of the real-life "Bling Ring" burglars who lived in those areas, their actions still seem outlandish and extreme.
"I'm only five years older than these people, but I don't share their same views," said Stecy Konian, 25, a nursing student who went to high school in Agoura Hills. "There were always kids who had an invincible attitude and felt entitled, but I think the obsession with fame is a lot more extreme now. When I went to high school, the reality shows weren't as prevalent. Now kids want to grow up to be the next Snooki, as opposed to aspiring to have a career."
Psychologist Madeline Levine specializes in adolescent behavior. To her, "The Bling Ring" is condemnation of a type of parenting that's happening in cities all around the country — parenting that is either too focused on concrete achievements (grades, trophies, etc.) or the kind that is totally absent.
"This was more a movie about adults than it was about teenagers," said Levine, author of "The Price of Privilege" and "Teach Your Children Well." "The message in the movie is told in a very simple way: You cannot raise children without being willing to be around. It's not such a complicated point to make — but it's an important one."
Without a secure upbringing, Levine argues that the teenagers' pilfering exploits read like any other addiction, which Levine sees more and more in her Marin-based practice as affluent kids struggle with finding their sense of self.
"It was an incredibly depressing condemnation of what it's like developing as an adolescent with no sense of meaning in your life," Levine said. "Part of the job of being a teenager is constructing some kind of identity. My sense is that because they had done such a poor job exploring and working on their own identity, they were borrowing from the identities of the people they most admired."
Levine, who writes extensively about our culture's shift to a high-pressure, high-intensity child-rearing philosophy, believes the film is a must-see for the teenage set. Lured in by the high fashion, hip music and the promise of access to the rich and famous, younger audiences may actually learn something after the fun, risky lifestyle presented loses its allure.
"Yes, it's compelling because it's a movie about stuff and affluence. But the bigger issue in the movie is how do you construct a meaningful life in this century, in this culture, under these conditions?" asks Levine. "That question, historically, has been of tremendous interest to teenagers. I don't hear that question in the office anymore. And that's the question they need to be asking themselves."
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