This latest work by Harmony Korine – more a ‘cinquantaine excentrique’ these days than the enfant terrible of yore – is a hyper-lysergic and pulpy exploitation / study of American college kid ‘spring break’ hedonism and the way it fits in with the ongoing oversexualisation of women and glamourisation of drugs, guns and violence in pop culture. High saturation levels, gold-toothed gangsters, bikini-clad women and leery close-ups of their jiggling backsides make for an eye-popping experience that certainly demands one’s attention, although the statement the director is making is at times unclear: this is an examination of the American Dream as it currently stands that repeatedly invites the viewer to condemn its shallow characters for their lack of morality and lack of remorse, yet Korine seems to enjoy wallowing in the debauched, spoilt, gaudy world depicted – much like Sofia Coppola did with her recent study of disaffected, spoilt LA teens, The Bling Ring – and is ultimately lenient towards most his movie’s numerous antiheroes.
Fnarr-fnarring about wobbly bums aside, Spring Breakers really is a joy to look at, even when Korine whiles away the minutes lampooning the promo videos for asinine Britney Spears ballads and the tackier end of the hip hop spectrum. The director and his Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie use an intense colour palette that accentuates the Miami Vice and Scarface sunsets of Florida and the nighttime glow of the state’s neon-lit strip malls, which serve as the backdrop for masses of tanned flesh and bright clothing. The director has, bizarrely, looked to the 1990s devolution of MTV from straight-up music video channel to purveyor of dumb, tawdry TV shows like Cribs for inspiration, copying the network’s depressing coverage of spring break beach PAs and parties and coupling it with a straightforward plot about criminal behaviour that covers a beef over territory between two rival gangsters. By the end the film effectively channels the Grand Theft Auto series of videogames, with a shootout that could easily be lifted straight from the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City episode.
Spring Breakers relies to some extent on a degree of knowledge of typical spring break practices; for the uninitiated that means college students descending on towns in Arizona, Texas, Florida and Mexico en masse for a week of drink-and-drug-fuelled mayhem in the sun each March. For most students in real life that probably means a few keg parties, a spot of casual sex, an extreme hangover or five, a bit of weed and a few class As, but a robbery-fuelled trip to St. Petersburg for disillusioned, bored girlfriends Brittany (Ashley Benson), Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife) turns out to be far more eventful when they hook up with James Franco’s outlandish rapper Alien.
Initially the foursome are happy indulging in the dubious pleasures on offer in Florida, be it the company of drunken, date-rapey jocks or the endless supply of booze and drugs available at the beach or in hotel rooms. Faith – the aptly-named religious member of the group – is so taken with her holiday she tells her grandma on the phone that it’s the most spiritual place she’s ever been, while Korine wryly shows her friends and other college kids urinating at the side of a street. Colourful scenes of parties and PAs are edited in a stuttering fashion, the director cutting back and forth in time and looping in repeated, softly-spoken phrases to simultaneously suggest the sense of disorientation that comes with being drunk as well as the different hyper-sensitive states associated with ecstasy, weed and coke. All the while there’s a flow of the vaguely-titillating, suggestive and demeaning ‘flesh, flesh and more flesh’ imagery closely associated with post-millennial pop videos and certain cheapo reality shows; every now and again, just when the onslaught of bouncing breasts, bums and beer funnels is beginning to seem utterly ludicrous, Korine smartly cuts to seemingly real footage of spring breakers doing the exact same things to remind us that his film is, incredibly, rooted in reality.
Though directed with real style and verve by Korine, the movie is both relentless and exhausting up to the point that the four girls are busted for drug use. The reliance on repetition has begun to betray the story’s lack of direction when the friends spend a night in the cells, but they are bailed out by Alien, a man they don’t actually know and whose benevolence clearly isn’t unconditional. The appearance of Franco’s outlandish character gives the film a much-needed jolt; seduced by Alien’s ill-gotten gains – guns and money on the bed, grand piano by the pool – they girls are quickly drawn into his world and begin robbing other spring breakers, while the rapper-come-dealer’s turf war with former friend Big Arch (Gucci Mane) escalates.
Franco is very good here, and though a campaign pushing for his performance to be recognised by the Shiny Gong-bestowing Academy was ultimately fruitless, he gives the film a few welcome subtle moments. On the face of it the character is a ludicrously over-the-top rapper and gangster, prone to jumping up and down on his bed shouting ‘LOOK AT MY SHIT!’ as he shows off his possessions. (It is in this scene that Spring Breakers most closely resembles – and satirises – the tasteless bragathons of MTV’s Cribs. Alien’s actions actually echo those seen earlier in the film, though, when spring breakers are shown jumping up and down on mattresses during hotel parties like hyperactive children. Incidentally, it has been suggested that Franco’s performance is partly-based on the real life rapper Riff-Raff, who Korine initially approached to be in the film, although Franco has claimed that little-known Florida rapper Dangeruss was his inspiration.) Yet he also displays a slightly-sensitive side at times, with the actor benefiting from the fact that Alien has the most developed back story in the film. (It’s disappointing to note that of the four main female roles only Faith is really developed in terms of her personality and history, although I suspect that is a deliberate ploy by Korine in order to accentuate the shallowness of the girls generally, but particularly with regard to Candy and Brit. Nevertheless, despite the lack of depth all four inject considerable energy into an already-energetic film, as does Franco, which I guess is the point.)
Korine’s casting of Gomez, Benson, Rachel Korine and Hudgens is interesting; all four of their characters seem to draw inspiration in a number of ways from the pop personas of Miley Cyrus, Christina Aguilera and – most obviously of all – Britney Spears (given away by an impromptu sing-along of ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ in a car park, which juxtaposes with the subsequent descriptions given by two of the characters of an armed robbery). The stars they look to have all progressed from backgrounds in children’s entertainment before being rapidly sexualized by stylists and record company bosses (to give the impression that they have suddenly transformed from innocent teenage girls to rampant, ultra-confident, ultra-daring sex kittens overnight), and you could argue that the way Brit, Candy, Cotty and Faith look and act is symptomatic of the pressure American girls are put under by popular culture to be just as alluring as the acts on MTV. There is an added layer to all of this in that Gomez (on / off girlfriend of Justin Bieber and star of several Disney-related films and TV shows) and Hudgens (ex-High School Musical) are, with their appearances in a film like this, effectively on a very similar career path, making the calculated leap from child star to sex bomb.
There is a flavour of the director as puppet master, or impresario, here, but I am not entirely sure whether he is exploiting these actors or whether he is using them necessarily to highlight the existing exploitation that is pushed by MTV and countless record companies. I strongly suspect the latter, though whether the cast and crew were fully aware of Korine’s motives is anyone’s guess. His choice is to expose the (generally-speaking) male-pleasing tendencies of music videos by using the very same methods they employ, but there’s an odd sense throughout the film and in the DVD extras that he also had the time of his life making Spring Breakers; indeed Korine has even commented wistfully that he never got to experience a real spring break holiday like this himself.
Ultimately while it seems like an arch, vaguely-pretentious skit about the decline of Western (or rather American) civilization, hidden beneath the thin veneer of a pulp crime / exploitation flick, it’s actually hard to discern much in the way of genuine, honest concern for the future. Instead Korine seems to me to be a filmmaker who thinks he should be making movies about such a subject. Does he truly want to, and does he have anything interesting to say? Looking past the film’s celebrated tackiness, and its stylish, impressively-throbbing colours, it’s hard to find much depth, although I guess that is the point (and yet, oddly, there are fleeting glimpses of an emotional core). That all said, though it’s as far away from being a conservative movie as you’re likely to see, religion and family life (particularly older relatives) appear in the script from time to time, distant from the action but serving as timely reminders about traditions and values that will soon be lost.
In a flashforward Candy and Brit are seen phoning home after the events of the story have taken place to nonchalantly tell their parents that they will work hard to become better people from now on, which makes for a spectacular turnaround to what has gone before. Is it an empty promise or is Korine suggesting that he is hopeful for the future of American youth after all? Fittingly, like much of this fascinating movie, it’s hard to tell from such an ambiguously-delivered statement.
Directed by: Harmony Korine
Written by: Harmony Korine
Starring: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, James Franco, Rachel Korine, Gucci Mane
Running Time: 90 minutes