Watching “Spring Breakers”
My spring breaks deliberately avoided the kinds of places and activities where I might encounter the sort of people featured in the new Harmony Korine movie “Spring Breakers.” No Cancun or Panama City Beach for me! Instead, my friends and I headed south for New Orleans, where we went on alligator tours, ate oysters and wandered around the French Quarter drinking beer and people watching. Have I ever regretted not having the stereotypical spring break experience? Of course not! Then why was I so eager to see “Spring Breakers,” and spend an hour-and-a-half with the type of witless college students who would normally make my skin crawl?
Well, the fact that Korine directed the film was a big draw. Korine first rose to prominence at the age of 22, as the screenwriter for the controversial 1995 film “Kids,” and then became known for directing the off-putting provocations “Gummo” and “Julien Donkey-Boy.” He has never made a film that’s remotely mainstream, and his last film, the dreadful “Trash Humpers,” was shot on worn VHS home video, and featured people in masks running around downtown Nashville, yelling nonsense and humping garbage cans. I thought the relentlessly unpleasant and pointless “Trash Humpers” was an unfortunate regression for Korine, who does have real talent — a unique ability to find beauty and transcendance among outcasts and the grimiest of locations. But maybe Korine had to get “Trash Humpers” out of his system to make his most commercial and enjoyable film to date.
“Spring Breakers” is Korine’s take on the teen sex comedy, an experimental riff on the “Girls Gone Wild” series, and the plot is pretty simple: Four girls lack the funds for the spring break trip they’re so desperate to take, and so they rob a diner using squirt guns and head to Florida. They drink and do drugs and dance and hook up, and are eventually arrested and forced to spend the night in jail in their bikinis. They are bailed out by a local rapper/drug dealer known as Alien (James Franco), who insists he just wants to get to know them. The token good girl (Selena Gomez) has the good sense to realize that Alien is bad news, and heads back to campus, while her friends Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) party on.
“Spring Breakers” pulsates with energy, and Korine’s use of color, sound and music is incredible — if I wasn’t so impressed with “Stoker,” I’d happily declare “Spring Breakers” the best-looking film of 2013. The movie is distinguished by an intoxicating visual style, filled with startling camera angles, candy-colored juxtapositions and offbeat directorial choices: The robbery at the diner is filmed from the getaway truck as it inches along the side of the building, while a scene where Alien sings and plays the Britney Spears song “Everytime” while the girls cavort on the deck wearing pink ski masks and toting guns — real guns, not squirt guns. This scene is beautiful, but also ominous, and hints at the darker places “Spring Breakers” intends to go. If the first half of the film feels like a fun party — a fun party if you’re the sort of person who likes to do keg stands in your bathing suit, that is — the second half feels like a bad party, where people have drunk too much and lingered too long and are going to get hurt if they don’t leave.
Which is SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY MORE IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! exactly what happens. Cotty gets shot in the arm and decides to leave, but Brit and Candy remain in Florida with Alien, eager to avenge Cotty’s shooting. In fact, they’re such willing accomplices that a good alternate title for “Spring Breakers” would be “Natural Born Killers” if that title hadn’t already been taken by Oliver Stone. The film’s final third is utterly ludicrous, as Candy and Brit reveal themselves to be crack shots, capable of taking out an entire compound of heavily armed gangsters and killing a bad-news gangster played by Gucci Mane. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this implausible twist would ruin the movie, but Korine’s film feels like a dream curdled into a nightmare, and it works pretty well.
Much has been made of the casting of “Spring Breakers,” which showcases formerly wholesome teen stars doing all manner of bad things. This was actually the least interesting thing about the film to me, because I barely know who these people are (though I did like Hudgens in the charming tween movie “Bandslam”) and with the exception of Gomez (who gives the most affecting performance in the film), it’s difficult to tell them apart. This is probably intentional, but it doesn’t make the girls any less vacuous as characters. James Franco, on the other hand, outdoes himself as Alien, and I could see his character becoming something of a cult figure, similar to Al Pacino’s Scarface. His speech where he tells the girls he always wanted to be a gangster — “Some people tell me I got to change. But I am about stacking change!” — is hilarious. In a way, “Spring Breakers” isn’t so very different from “Kids,” and the film often feels like a sun-drenched, more comedic take on some of the same “youth gone wild” themes, one that eschews the realism of “Kids” for unhinged dark fantasy.
Korine could care less, for the most part, about creating sympathetic, relatable characters, and as “Spring Breakers” progresses, the girls become less and less sympathetic and relatable: Let’s face, a lot of spring breakers might be shallow and dumb, but most of them do not commit violent acts of crime to pay for their vacations. In other words: “Spring Breakers” is not so much a film about a fall from innocence as a film about characters who were never very innocent in the first place. Korine might intend his film as indictment of a certain strain of youth culture and American pop culture, an unflinching examination of the dark underbelly of the spring break experience, but I’d caution against looking to “Spring Breakers” for deep meanings, or trenchant insights on what’s wrong with society and the youth of today. What this film provides is surface pleasures — loads of them. It might not have a lot to say beyond “sometimes crazy stuff happens” and “sometimes people do bad things,” but it sure looks good.
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