Directed by Harmony Korine
Screenplay by Harmony Korine
James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine
How long is Spring Breakers? 98 minutes.
What is Spring Breakers rated? R for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout.
Bad Girls Go Everywhere
Harmony Korine’s work has never been, and may never be, easy to digest. The writer and director of such dreary, stomach-turning misfit dramas as Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy and Trash Humpers has now completed his most mainstream, accessible film to date, but that still gives Spring Breakers elbow room to assault the senses and values of an audience without mercy.
We begin on the grounds of a nearly empty college campus. Faith (Selena Gomez), embodying the struggle between strong traditional values and a restless teenage spirit, has elected to set out on a classic Florida spring break trip with her wild-side friends Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, wife of the director). Faith ostensibly has a benign and constructive wish to broaden her horizons, even as her church friends warn her about the dangers of falling in with the wrong people far from home. Whatever heights of liberty and abandon she expects from spring break, she appears to operate under the optimistic illusion that good clean fun will win out, or at least that four friends sticking together could not possibly let any harm come to one another.
Faith is soon to learn that her chosen companions have a more reckless agenda in mind. Surely she must have wondered at their inclination to practice making out with one another, for when boys will inevitably ask them to do so. If not, then alarm bells ought to have sounded within once the group decided to stage an armed heist in order to supplement their vacation fund. Surely. No? Okay, we are criminals now. But it’s Spring Break! Kids are expected to overcome inhibitions and push boundaries. How much further, Faith must suppose, could things really go?
At first, everything goes just like a song – like the boozy, brain-rattling dubstep track that first draws the curtain back on a sea of gyrating, beer-soaked, cocaine-boosted nudity. Rather than balk at this madness, Faith enjoys it right alongside her friends at first, but their resolve to break new boundaries just might outlast her own. When the party gets out of hand and fate puts them in the debt of a local rapper, drug hustler and self-styled brother from another planet called Alien (James Franco), she finds that Brit, Candy and Cotty are only getting warmed up for fun. In stealing the money to pay for their spring break, these three gave themselves a taste of roguish adventure that Alien proceeds to nurture with promises of all the guns, drugs and sex they want, for as long as they can last. Little do they know that Alien and his crew operate in a precarious world, their lifestyle a thorn in the side of local kingpin Big Archie (Gucci Mane) which the arrival of his new girls irritates in a hurry. To tell more would only be to spoil tension and sap impact from the course things inevitably take.
Here is a question that may or may not be crucial – how much, if any, of these adventures actually happened? Throughout the movie, and especially in the final act, Korine seems to hint perversely that we, the audience, are being pulled down a rabbit hole, with Saint Pete’s standing in for Wonderland or (given Franco’s presence) the Marvelous Underbelly Of Oz. “Pretend you’re in a movie,” the girls tell each other to gear up for their exploits, and “act like it’s a video game.” Indeed, the film’s aggressive doses of amateur T&A, caught on video by countless mobile phones, has been intercut with improbably glamorous sequences of our protagonists enjoying themselves in a minimally sleazy and degrading version of what goes on around them. The mobbed beaches and trashed motel rooms of real life melt, with the foul exuberance of burning plastic sunglasses, into an adolescent dream resembling nothing so much as Grand Theft Auto‘s Vice City.
Besides Alien’s constant narrative refrain of “Spri-i-i-ing Break…. Spring Break 4-Ever…” there are moments of key dialogue that the actors repeat and repeat, each time in a slightly different attitude and manner. This may merely be Korine following a compulsion to rub certain spots over and over until painful rashes form on his audience. But what seems more likely is that we are seeing multiple characters’ perspectives on either a memory or a delusion. It is a painful stretch to suggest that most of the movie is each girl’s troubling fantasy of how spring break will be, dreamed up while sitting in their dorm with no money. However, the fact that Korine’s tale allows for such questions is one of the most fascinating things about it. The movie’s ambiguity, with each interpretation bearing its own horrifying implications, lends unexpected dramatic weight to the exploitative revelry that makes up most of it. In the end it comes off more like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho than a college-years sequel to the 2012 high school rampage reverie Project X.
In the case of either comparison, at what point do exploitation and prurience smother all questions of satire? This movie walks right up to that line, peers over it, and petulantly shakes its nubile teenage body in the sun for those on the other side. For some (including several members of last night’s audience) Spring Breakers will stand as mere glorification of underage body-poisoning and sexual depravity. These people are likely to bail out during the first half hour, when this does indeed seem to be the case. Once Alien and his posse show up, bearing a Faustian invitation to live the Scarface life “4-ever,” the compelling ideas of this often repellent movie become harder to dismiss. Unlike Project X, an irresponsible but enjoyably anti-authoritarian movie depicting a virtually consequence-free orgy of destruction, Spring Breakers is not simply “for fun.” Over their increasing involvement in the dark reaches beyond the beach party hangs the prospect of genuine destruction for Faith, Brit, Candy and Cotty. Along the way, they encounter a sufficiency of escape points at which to reconsider and repent, but what would it take for all four of them to relinquish the promise of living free or dying?
The disjointed pace of Spring Breakers is most reminiscent of a long, remorseful hangover memory, in which how things really played out is, at best, open to debate. Let us suppose, though, that everything in the script happened more or less as the camera tells us. A satirical mainstay of most modern coming-of-age stories is adolescent angst over the fallacy that what happens to us from high school through most of college will have grand, irrevocable consequences in adult life. In most cases it will not, but just try telling that to a teenager. Making exceptions for a bad accident or victimization by the truly evil, for most kids spring break is an isolated, hazily remembered rite of passage whose main risk is one or more misdemeanors on the rap sheet. What would happen, Spring Breakers cheekily suggests, if a spring break came along that you genuinely allowed to change your life? For a rational viewer with no death wish, the path of this film cannot rationally be characterized as anything but the sum total of many terrible judgment calls. However, at a certain out-of-focus point even the most hardcore of our Breakers must decide, consciously and without coercion, to break bad and embrace the lure of self-endangering excess. Some people, as Alien’s existence proves, simply harbor the ambition to live that way.
The main cast deserve favorable mention for their commitment. Their roles may be broad, allegorical stereotypes of “good girl,” “bad girls,” and “thug,” but Gomez, Hudgens, Benson and Korine dive in with sincerity and never break character. Franco, meanwhile, is nothing short of inspired as a walking, breathing “No Exit” sign at the end of life’s Wrong Road. With his greasy cornrows, jarring gangsta grill, and charismatic smooth-talk, he is the perfect devil for this infernal descent. His quiet, shambling, eerily seductive monologues are the best bits of the movie.
Spring Breakers is not for everyone, and certainly not for the very young or easily shocked. Perhaps it is not really “for” anyone at all, but it has too many interesting ideas to be tossed aside as mere transgression for its own sake. The point seems not to be how great spring break can be, but that its unapologetic excesses would not have evolved to their current state were it not for the troubling allure of depravity. Spring Break, the institution, exists because the ability to act dangerously bad is in high demand, especially by the young and foolish. In some, there is a dark seed willing them to go as far as they can, beyond any possible argument of just having fun. Where does the border lie between the fantasy of going way, way too far, and the determination to go that far in the flesh? There is a thought you may find haunting you once the fun is all done.