Directed by Harmony Korine
Canny provocateur that he is, director Harmony Korine (Gummo, Kids) has packed his new film Spring Breakers with enough publicity-generating, meta-textual talking points to make the actual quality of his movie almost irrelevant. There's his casting of Disney Channel tween idols Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens as scantily clad young women on a crime spree. (Is he exploiting them? Are they empowering themselves by casting off their Disney shackles? Theirs are the thongs that launched a thousand think pieces.)
The presence of James Franco allows everyone to play another spirited round of "Just what is James Franco's deal, anyway?" (He's taking time off here from writing/directing/starring in an adaptation of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying to play a cornrowed white rapper named Alien). And there's an extra-credit opportunity for armchair psychology in Korine's casting of his wife Rachel as one of the more debauched members of the film's girl gang.
It all has the air of a stunt, which is why it's blindsiding to discover that Spring Breakers is a real honest-to-god movie, one of formal intelligence and even intellectual ambition. That's true even in the film's opening provocation — a slo-mo montage of a St. Petersburg spring break at its trashiest. Beer sprays over writhing beach bodies as Korine's camera takes in the scene, alternating between moments of youthful, carefree grace along with vulgar, naked horror. (Bikini babes suggestively licking patriotic red-white-and-blue popsicles is a loaded image if there ever was one.) The dubstep gurgles of Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" blare all the while, and the partygoers could fit either description.
All this turns out to be the fantasy of our titular quartet of girls (rounded out by ABC Family star Ashley Benson). They're bored at college (giggling and doodling penises as their professor discusses the status of African-Americans during reconstruction) and desperate for something beyond the occasional bong hit to break up the monotony. At least one of them is looking for spiritual transcendence as well. Gomez's character Faith (this is not a subtle movie, admittedly) can't help finding her bliss in bacchanalia. Her church's path to fulfillment can't seem to match it, even when clothed in its accoutrements (literally — the bro-friendly pastor wears Ed Hardy).
This is a pretty bad strategy for finding transcendence, as the ladies find out soon enough, but Korine never condescends to his characters. He views them instead with sincere empathy, capturing their naïve but deeply-felt attempts to cling to fleeting highs — not unlike Springsteen's "Born to Run" hero looking to die with Wendy in an everlasting kiss. But he's simultaneously horrified by the lengths they'll go to in pursuit of those wishes. In one bravura sequence, the group (sans Faith) robs a chicken joint to finance their Florida vacation. We watch from inside the car with the getaway driver while Nicki Minaj is on the radio wishing she could hold on to a "Moment 4 Life". Later in the film, we'll flash back and see the terror of the victims and the narcissism of the participants — but in that first scene, the cruelty seems far away from this celeb/self-obsessed automotive bubble.
As the girls throw themselves into revelry, the film takes on the feel of an altered state itself. Korine fractures the chronology and scatters in past joys and future omens in with the present. (It's funny how much this film resembles Malick's Tree of Life, from the spiritual yearning and earnest voiceover to the flowing camerawork and fractured timeline.) Skrillex soundtracks the parties, Cliff Martinez (Drive) scores the dreamy ambient interludes between them, and Gaspar Noe's cinematographer Benoit Debie captures it all with smeared, candy-colored lights. (Korine's own description: he wanted the film to look like it was "lit with Skittles"). And things only ramp up when Franco enters the movie, with Alien bailing the girls out after a drug charge. He comes on like a cheerful hip-hop Mephistopheles, flashing his silver teeth and bragging about the Uzis and bricks of weed that are the core of his criminal enterprise. ("Look at my shit," he screams while showing off his home to the girls. "I've got shorts! Every fucking color!")
But Korine reveals him as something more complex, a creature of adaptation scratching his way towards his slice of the American cheesecake. (Several critics have called him a Gatsby figure — he certainly has any number of docks and distant glowing lights to choose from.) Growing up poor alongside his friend/rival drug dealer Archie (Gucci Mane), Alien has entered into one of the few power structures available to him, the criminal underworld, and evolved as necessary to fit within it (stealing from black culture for a racial masquerade — and reinforcing vile stereotypes in the process). There's a scene in the second act where Alien, facing down a gun barrel, survives by embracing the new power dynamic he's been placed in. What he does is campy and graphic and fit for a John Waters movie, but Korine makes you aware that it's also Darwinian. (The performance is also handily a career peak for Franco, who's totally committed here in a way he rarely is on film.)
Things inevitably veer towards the tragic as Alien enlists the girls for drug-dealing duty, though maybe not the exact kind of tragic you'd expect. (Korine doesn't go in for the fall-of-the-corrupted-woman archetype — the winners and losers here are decided more on a class basis.) Along the way, there's an array of indelible moments, from night-time shootouts with the girls in neon balaclavas to a crime-montage/dance-number set to Alien's piano cover of Britney Spears' "Everytime". (Spears ends up as a weird patron saint of the movie. The girls reminisce in happier times with a "Baby One More Time" sing-along, and "Everytime," the video for which famously featured Spears fantasizing about self-destruction and suicide, proves an accurate cinematic omen. There's also Alien's Kevin Federline resemblance.)
Plenty of viewers will reject Spring Breakers, if not for its avant-garde aesthetics and occasional (and intentional) focus on blunt repetition, then for the general sketchiness of it all (David Edelstein in New York Magazine said Breakers is "among the perviest movies ever made"). And others might complain that the film tosses out too many ideas about race and class, self-worship/annihilation, feminist power dynamics, and celebrity culture to fully develop any of them. But there's still plenty of substance lurking beneath these gleaming surfaces, and Korine's achievement is something novel. Here is a film that synthesizes all sorts of "low" art, from "Jersey Shore" to bass drops, into one gorgeous/horrifying spectacle that casts a critical eye but avoids easy parody and irony. When Alien drawls "spr-a-a-ng break forev-ah" repeatedly in the trailers, it seems like a joke — Korine's achievement is that after seeing the movie, that same hedonist mantra seems haunting.