Sofia Coppola's biggest liability as a filmmaker is typically identified as her immensely cloistered upbringing as an untouchable scion of Hollywood royalty, someone for whom moneyed Southern California celebrity life is so utterly normalised and unexceptional that she's literally incapable of imagining what it might be like to live like the enormous majority of human beings have over the course of recorded history. That's an impossible criticism to counter. On the other hand, her insider status has left her with a particularly intimate and valuable perspective on the culture she inhabits, and though she may be heavily insulated, unintelligent she's not. All of her films are to some degree possessed of a level of frank sociological critique that's miles away from the Hollywood princess shtick her detractors identify, but it became especially sharp in her last film, 2010's Somewhere, and grows even more so in her new film The Bling Ring, which I'm tremendously eager to anoint as her very best movie, though that's something one shouldn't do until at least a little bit of time has passed.

In real life, the Bling Ring was the media-given name to a gang of high schoolers living in one of the posher corners of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, who committed an unknown number of home burglaries in 2008 and 2009, mostly targeting the homes of celebrity fashionistas (their favorite target being Paris Hilton, who plays herself in an ironically detached, non-speaking cameo). Coppola's film, adapted from a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, depicts the lightly fictionalised adventures of the re-named members of this gang with a dry, damn near mechanistic perspective; something that's emphatically neither docudrama nor naturalism, though it mimics the technique of both.

In this streamlined, compact (the film is a gloriously short 90 minutes) depiction of things, retiring teenager Marc (Israel Broussard), upon arriving at a new school that caters to the troubled children of rich parents, quickly falls in with Rebecca (Katie Chang), a smart and poised and altogether charismatic young woman. She's the center of a clique that includes fellow poised young ladies Chloe (Claire Julien), Nicki (Emma Watson), and Nicki's adopted sister/best friend Sam (Taissa Farmiga), all of them living the kind of carefully-burnished, deliberately shallow existences that only privileged white Angelinos can imagine, and even this isn't enough for Rebecca, who spontaneously goads Marc into breaking into the home of an acquaintance, which merely whets her taste for the thrill of stealing beautiful things from people even more privileged and wealthy than she, and in no time at all, the four girls and boy are regularly dropping in on the stunningly easily-invaded homes of Hilton, Rachel Bilson, Lindsay Lohan, and others, using the limitless celebrity-tracking powers of the internet to determine who will be away when, and where their homes are.

The social satire writes itself, and to her inestimable credit, Coppola virtually never sees the need to announce her themes or analysis ("virtually" owing solely to a line Marc speaks in tragically self-aware confession to the cops near the end, during the film's absolutely worst point - it's hard to imagine what denouement would work for this film, but the one it has isn't it), assuming that we're going to understand from the scenario and the way it's been shot by Christopher Blauvelt and the late, dearly lamented Harris Savides (it was his last film; he is its dedicatee) that this is all a potent, deeply ironic commentary on the ubiquity of celebrity culture in the lives of modern American adolescents, and an even more potent, deeper commentary on the object-obsessed consumer society of which celebrity worship is merely one of many tendrils. It says a lot that for all the clothing stolen by Rebecca and her cohort, and all the money taken in the name of buying more and better things, we almost never see any of the teens wearing the fruits of their thievery, except when they're playing dress up in the victims' houses. Acquiring and having are the end-goals; usage and practicality are literally not even on the radar of anybody, from the most venal and selfish to the most nervous and guilt-ridden.

And again, none of this is stressed, none of it is insisted-upon; Coppola is simply not in the mind to make a polemic, and the movie turns out all the better for it. Where The Bling Ring is satiric, it arrives there because Savides and Blauvelt's camera has such a detached, very nearly Kubrickian disinterest in seeing its characters as any more than mechanical objects moving through their environment (in fact, the film's no-holds-barred best moment is a long wide shot that sits on the hill outside Audrina Patridge's house, rendered as virtually indistinguishable from an aquarium, the burglars flitting from room to room like tropical fish in a plastic castle, and the image cedes to them no more personality than that). While the trappings of celebrity life are framed in glamorising shots, with the soundtrack promising how hip and awesome all of this is - one shot of shoes is a dead ringer for a similar image in the far less ambivalent Marie Antoinette - the cumulative effect is less that the lifestyle on display is appealing or exciting; we're kept at arm's length from the stuff just like we are from the characters, and the predominant feeling one gets is that Coppola is fascinated to study this place and these characters, but doesn't feel any more attachment to them than a scientist does to his rats.

The refusal to dig into the characters is quite comprehensive (most vividly demonstrated by the casual details heavily implying Marc's homosexuality, a personality trait that's called up almost solely so Coppola can make sure we understand how much she doesn't think it's important and that we should agree with her), though they're not mere ciphers, mostly on the strength of an impressive (if not world-beating) cast of mostly fresh faces; if Emma Watson still emerges as perhaps the most impressive member of the cast, that's got a lot to do with how shockingly different from, and better than, her longstanding stint as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series this act of character creation is, and how complex Nicki ends up being: two-thirds of the movie she's just a dim, easily-impressed joke of a girly-girl, but as the scheme starts to unravel and the movie wraps up, we're swiftly introduced to nuances and hidden reservoirs of intelligence: she's a smart girl playing at being an pop-culture addled idiot, which more or less describes every character, and every performance, but the essentially tragic Marc, a lonely kid who just wanted a friend, and got the wrong ones.

Back, if we may, to my initial point: Sofia Coppola, an insider in this over-privileged world, standing at a remove from it, that she might better observe and diagnose it. The Bling Ring doesn't exactly condemn its characters, whose actions are depicted as being victimless, in a way (the affronted celebrities, even the ones who appear in the flesh, are depersonalised to the point of abstraction), and which are depicted with just enough visual energy that the film never risks becoming an easy moral polemic; it's far more critical of their attempts to parlay immoral behavior into stardom than of the immoral behavior itself, and by extension of the worldview that did, in reality, make them famous for their crimes. Mostly, what it's doing is looking at the way young people engage with media and technology (the super-casual way that Google is used to abet housebreaking is an essay all by itself), and non-judgmentally asking the question, "Is this the culture we really want?" Coppola refuses to answer, but the way she asks the question is more than reward enough.