The story on which the 2011 Lifetime movie The Bling Ring is based has, for whatever reason(s), struck a chord with audiences. First of all, if Lifetime makes a movie based on a story, that’s a pretty good indicator right there that it’s a popular issue in the public discourse. But then, when TV shows make episodes based on the story and when Hollywood decides to give it the big-budget treatment, there is simply no denying it: The story of the Los Angeles teens who robbed celebrity homes in 2008 and 2009 somehow manages to speak to those who eagerly consume the tellings and retellings.
What makes the Lifetime movie version more than merely a social document is the surprisingly sympathetic characterization of the unwitting mastermind, Zack Garvey (Austin Butler). Zack is a mixed up kid dreading his first day at a new alternative school in California. Plagued by severe anxiety and forced to contend with an overbearing father, Zack wakes up each and every day just hoping he can somehow summon the strength to make it through the day’s tortuously long hours. The first ray of sunshine comes in the form of fellow troubled student, Natalie Kim (Yin Chang), a stylish teen obsessed with celebrity gossip. Aware of his attraction to her and impressed by his knowledge of insider celebrity information, Natalie recognizes Zack’s potential use to her in her narcissistic quest for celebrity and makes him her new partner-in-crime. And trouble soon follows.
Zack finds himself caught up in an escalating series of thrill-seeking adventures that see Natalie and a growing number of friends sneak into celebrity houses, first just to play dress up with their multi-million dollar wardrobes and then to snag their favorite articles of clothing as souvenirs and potential products for sale on the Internet. All throughout the proceedings, though, from the initial break-in at Paris Hilton’s house to his eventual arrest, Zack maintains a moral compass. It is just overcome at times by his desire for friendship, for a connection with his peers, and for a connection with Natalie. While Natalie and her friends remain oblivious to the consequences of their actions and the harm they are causing the celebrities whose lives they are invading, concerned only with their growing media coverage and their sky high profits from the sale of their celebrity loot, Zack justifies his actions by acknowledging that, without his insider knowledge and his newfound leadership qualities, he would have remained the same shy, nervous, lonely boy who first arrived at school with no friends and no self-esteem. Once he finally comes to the realization that he is no longer pleased by the image he sees in the mirror, Zack disavows his popularity and his celebrity and helps the police put an end to the mischief.
In addition to the singular characterization of Zack Garvey, screenwriter Shelley Evans also offers a minor-yet-strong supporting character, Detective Archie Fishman (brought to life by veteran television actor Tom Irwin). Given glimpses into his home life and seeing him reach out to Zack in an effort to save him from the downward spiral in which he was trapped, Detective Fishman adds a welcome layer of moral complexity and emotional poignancy to the film.
Thanks to the smart script and the strong performances from both the main and the supporting cast, The Bling Ring is one of the many shining examples of not just the consistency of the Lifetime product, but of its unceasing evolution.