Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers”, a dizzying, nerve-jangling discomfort, is pure dream fantasy.
In his thrilling satire laced with hypnotic fever, Mr. Korine lays out a clash of pop cultural ambitions (or realities) early on. There’s sunny, topless raunchy teens on Florida beaches doing every which thing with beer one can imagine while an electro beat soundtrack assaults our senses. The image collides with the grainy reality of four white college girls who gravitate to violence in order to join their brethren in the Sunshine State. This second reality is fueled by gangsta rap culture the beats of which are incorporated into a Robert De Niro Max Cady-like swamp thing charmer in the intentionally-named Alien (an unrecognizable James Franco), a part-time rapper full-time drug and crime “lord” who seduces the foursome into his empire.
Mr. Korine (“Gummo”, “Trash Humpers”, writer of “Kids”) has long captured a young generation’s sense of alienation and aimlessness, and arguably punctures through the surface of such despair and anti-social behavior better than any American filmmaker around. “Spring Breakers” showcases sex, nudity and drug use but in ways that are nauseating rather than arousing or alluring. All of these things are presented as the film’s unyielding white noise, calculated to cause maximum distress not pleasure.
In crafting “Spring Breakers” Mr. Korine spares no blushes with the great American “menage et deux” of sex and violence, uniting them in powerful, suspenseful fashion. He uses the sound effects of gun barrel locks and reloads as a disturbing anthem that persists throughout. I don’t believe it’s meant to be an overbearing device as much as it is the inevitable signal of the film’s destination.
“Spring Breakers” is part-fairy tale, part-fable, with Faith (Selena Gomez), a Bible-educated student, expressing reservations about being in Florida after events take a frightening turn. Faith struggles with peer pressure and gut feelings before making a key decision. Others are too deep in the fantasy of their own movie, one which “Spring Breakers” conjures as a hybrid of casting couch and shooting star subversion for two of the women in a memorable bedroom sequence.
One of the things that makes “Spring Breakers” appealing is its four women, specifically because the actresses who play them have, for the most part, positive on and off-screen images. Relationships aside, Vanessa Hudgens (who plays Candy) was a Disney staple in the innocent, fun loving “High School Musical” films. Miss Gomez featured in “Hannah Montana” on TV. Yet in Mr. Korine’s film one character’s name interestingly may evoke a once-turbulent celebrity like Britney Spears (Ashley Benson plays Brit.)
Is the director commenting on the relentlessness of celebrity and its attendant horrors? The contrast between the actresses and their characters in this instance makes the onscreen types’ growing predicament more horrific even as they writhe around suggestively in semi-nudeness — somewhere between daring girl and full-bodied woman — with gymnastic brio.
Alien himself (a superbly mocking and haunting Mr. Franco) was presumably like these four women at one point: exasperated, alienated, failing and troubled, seeking something greater from American society than what it spoonfed him. Judging from the looks of things, he found it, and at a high price. Alien is much smaller in his own mind than he thinks, and the arsenal of weapons at his disposal reinforces the gulf between his self-aggrandizement (as promoted in gangsta rap) and his reality. Alien champions American film pop culture figures like Tony Montana and to a lesser extent Cody Jarrett but has the ambition of neither. Alien’s manhood is questioned and challenged, most frequently by the young women themselves. “You’re scared, aren’t you?”, one repeatedly taunts.
An especially important scene the director (perhaps unintentionally) hits home with is an innocuous one early on when two of the women draw phallic pictures in a history class as a professor can be heard lecturing on the enslavement of blacks in the U.S. and the civil rights movement. It’s a subtle scene, and Mr. Korine may or may not be suggesting that slavery has much to do with how some blacks become part of the urban subculture of violence in America. (Incidentally, no black faces are visible in the professor’s classroom, at least as I recall.)
Like swaths of today’s iPad generation, the two students in the scene described above are oblivious to American history. Perhaps subconsciously, not unlike some white rappers (Vanilla Ice), musicians (Joss Stone) and filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino) in other areas of black music or urban hip culture, the women of “Spring Breakers” tap into or appropriate a subculture of romanticized imagery and “thug” glamour to gain self-empowerment however empty and false, following a successful robbery that leaves the women craving more. Some of the women in “Spring Breakers” desperately want to be something they are not. At one point some they even dress like a skimpier version of the Russian rebel rockers Pussy Riot. The latter term could be given to a couple of the women in the film, rebels in their own right against the whole idea of escapism.
A climactic scene emphasizes how real the life these spring break women may be craving is, complete with the overweight women who are part of its landscape. Will Brit and Candy (Ashley Benson) end up this way? We often hear Candy in droll, sarcastic voiceover on the phone telling her mother (whom we never see) that she’s “having the time of her life” during spring break. Where are these women’s parents?
“Spring Breakers” doesn’t have a very active narrative but has unyielding visceral energy. Characters don’t evolve as much as they escape from or disappear into the Florida of Miami native sex rap group 2 Live Crew and the Florida of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Make no mistake, Mr. Korine cuts deep, in a longer than usual 90-minute experience that isn’t for everyone — or even those who have a certain notion of spring break in America — but he gets results and necessarily gets to your disposition.
Also with: Gucci Mane, Heather Morris, Lee Irby, Emma Holzer, Ash Lendzion.
Read original review here
“Spring Breakers” is now playing. The film is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout. The film’s running time is one hour and 34 minutes.
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Omar P.L. Moore is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the editor and creator of The Popcorn Reel movie review/interview website. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, read at www.popcornreel.com, contacted at twitter.com/popcornreel and seen reviewing films at youtube.com/popcornreel.