Dir. Harmony Korine
In some ways, Harmony Korine may have made some fairly bad decisions in making, casting and marketing Spring Breakers, a film which, on the surface, promises much to the horny teen and little to the serious cinema-goer, or many in-between. From its neon-soaked, obnoxious, loud and voyeuristic trailer to the extreme promotional focus on its bikini-clad, former Disney Princess cast, potential viewers may be forgiven for rejecting this out-of-hand as another daft American teenage romp, with child stars trying desperately to look edgy and thus employable.
But perhaps it will be exactly those viewers looking for sun, sea, sand and sex that will be most disappointed, because Korine, for a solid first forty-five minutes at least, inverts those tropes in an engaging, artistically strong film about modern youth culture and its bastardisation of the now vacuous American Dream.
Most of the real (ie unstaged) shots of spring break anarchy, so foregrounded in the trailer, are contained in the first few minutes of the film; but with all the drink and drug fuelled chaos, the topless revellers and keg-standing jocks, presented in slo-mo and cut with scenes of a church group praying, it is rendered thoroughly unerotic. Korine makes it quite clear from the beginning that while there might be titillation along the way, this film is not a simple celebration of hedonism. Korine uses a palette of aggressive neons, often in night-time shoots, to foreground a dizzying debauchery made more prominent through shaky handheld camera work, low-angles and extreme close-ups.
This is the overwhelming tone of the first half of the movie, largely focused on the appropriately named Faith (Selena Gomez), a devout student who has possibly picked the wrong friends. She and the other three girls, Candy, Brit and Cotty (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine), are desperate to join the throngs on vacation; but without the cash to do so, the latter three commit a brilliantly shot robbery, beginning a journey of violent excess and excitement-driven depravity.
The gang never rise far above mindlessness, speaking in embarrassing clichés and immature platitudes. They’ve gone to Florida not to party but to “find themselves”, to see something different and not boring. The over-the-top party scene is even described as “the most spiritual place I’ve ever seen”. As the binges intensify, so does the danger and Faith’s discomfort: eventually the group are arrested on drug charges, to be bailed by the frankly absurd rapping gangster Alien (James Franco, complete with Jaws-style grill). He is the catalyst for the dissolution of the pretence that this is all life-affirming fun and games; a transparently materialistic, sleazy and increasingly dangerous man, who intrigues everyone but Faith. As a result, her adventure is over, despite being the focus and the heart of the film until then.
This is important, because from Alien’s introduction, Spring Breakers quickly unravels as an interesting film, descending in to silly, derivative gangster territory. The three remaining girls get wrapped up in his criminal schemes and his heightening conflict with former best friend Archie. There’s is a world without consequence, telling themselves to “pretend like its a videogame, act like you’re in a movie”, and so even while their dream of a Spring Break collapses, this life of crime is simply an extension of the limitless entertainment, the material enjoyment which has driven them throughout. Though the film undoubtedly loses its way in this final act, failing to maintain the emotion and psychological intrigue or even the fun of the earlier parts, it remains an interesting, provocative critique of modernity’s obsession with instant gratification and success at the expense of spiritual or moral depth.
Violent, intriguing, often gorgeous, occasionally funny and finally a bit daft, Spring Breakers has an will divide opinion – one fellow viewer told me they thought it was an unsuccessful comedy, which it may well be. It is designed to be, like its characters, all surface – a world of sheen and gloss which belies a darker underbelly. There are half decent performances with some pretty two-dimensional characters, intriguing shooting with a plotless plot. Nonetheless Spring Breakers challenges what it will be preconceived to be successfully – just as the film itself does with the iconic American cultural vacation. It definitely shouldn’t be considered as unsubstantial as its costume department.
Spring Breakers is showing now at the DCA.