Spring Breakers appears as a refreshing change for Harmony Korine, if only because for the first time in his strange filmmaking career, his battle of conspicuous storytelling tropes and self-aware naturalism collides in a way that adds up to something symbolic. A Lynchian nightmare that turns the camera away from the dreams of small town America and trains it on the fun of naked beach romps, Spring Breakers must be consumed as a metaphor for a culture hooked on the drugs of now. These drugs, according to Korine, range from snorting coke off other humans to playing video games, an element that in Spring Breakers morphs into the reality of holding up a chicken shack only to morph back into a video game when the main characters are in the thick of partying. Elliptical in structure and often repetitive, the film is eager to probe at the moral core of a national epidemic of debauchery. Of course, to buy into what many will see as nonsense, is also to question whether the film might be memorable only because of it’s borderline pornography and graphic violence. To my mind, this very question only enhances precisely what Korine is attempting to express.
Bored at college and out of money, four friends hold up a chicken shack to get loot for a Spring Break trip in St. Petersburg, FL. Once there, the girls soak up the sun, booze, cocaine, and naked bodies, all the while basking in the spiritual excitement of finally being free. After one bender gets them arrested, they are bailed out by a small time rapper and gangster called Alien. Alien takes the girls under his wing and they most quickly fall for his “charms” and excessive material wealth. Alien and the girls start a robbing spree that ends in a blood feud with Alien’s former mentor, Archie. With the help of Brit and Candy, the film’s de facto leads, Alien goes to confront Archie in a bloody final shootout.
Somewhere in an alternate universe there’s a Harmony Korine who works for an Old Hollywood studio as a David O. Selznick-like creative producer, conjuring up compelling ideas that are both entertaining and reflective of contemporary society. In this universe, however, Korine hires fresh talent to write, direct, and otherwise see his ideas to the finish line. In that alternate universe, Korine’s a genius. Yet, in the one we have, he’s a intriguing talent whose deficiencies as a storyteller have become as endearing as his ideas in general. Spring Breakers exposes these deficiencies when we see characters spends minutes of screen time deciding whether to stay or go and we spend a nauseating minute on a bus with Selena Gomez only watching her star listlessly out the window. Maybe it’s what makes him different, but Korine is nothing if not grace-less.
Yet, Spring Breakers is the first time since Kids that Korine’s poetic naturalism works to convey the atmosphere of fringe American environments. The repetitive trance-like images of naked college kids cheering in slowing motion opens the film and remains littered throughout as reminder of the lure that attracts these young girls even when their judgements might think better of it. Similarly, the chicken shack robbery is first seen from the perspective of the getaway car with the accompaniment of the girls saying “pretend it’s like a video game.” The images inside the shack are decidedly less explosive then one might see in an actual video game. Instead the girls waves hammers and guns at less than enthused patrons. During the girls’ retelling of the scene, the images turn into over-the-top video game violence with the girls assaulting customers and commanding everyone in sight get on their knees. Here Korine draws the conspicuous nature of a Hollywood-constructed narrative in precise alignment with it’s fabrications in reality.
The clipped editing style stays patient only when capturing James Franco’s brilliant turn as Alien. Otherwise, Korine only holds long enough on the girls for us to gather glimpses of their youthful bodies, in scant bikinis that expose the makings of beer guts. Korine may be tempting the viewer into wanting more of it’s hyper sexual leads (of whom Vanessa Hudgens is by far the standout) or perhaps he’s covering up for a lack of acting chops. The indirect result is a film that never allows the viewer in, like the blur of a High School kegger, everything in Spring Breakers remains at arm’s length, just one beer away from making you feel like you want to puke. Where it fails in emotional engagement, the style works intellectually as a comment on a national value system still firmly in need of something to believe (as exhibited by way of a not so subtle correlation to religion) but without the ability to differentiate between the substantive the lowest base version of “fun.”
Charges of racism have surrounded Spring Breakers because of the plot’s turn in the second half to Alien’s vendetta with his former mentor, played by real life rapper Gucci Mane. However, whereas Django Unchained cloyingly dares the viewer to find anything about it racist, Korine’s film deal directly in stereotypes and oversimplifications as a reflection of the morals of a system constantly looking for easy answers and ways out. By turning his villain into the kind you might see on the nightly news or the sort of gangster rapper who still embodies the “bad” people vilified by the Christian right, Korine is only flipping the expectations when our white/petite heroines shoot them to smithereens. In a world where we will always root for those who we aspire to be, Korine comments on how easily we might let these white girls off the hook when seeing them kill the black man.
Spring Breakers is far from a perfect movie (mainly due to Korine’s patented hyperactivity that promotes a lack of focus), though it’s likely to be one of the most memorable of 2013. It’s an important film because it aligns itself with and assaults a society that has become drunk of Youtube videos, Internet porn, mobile electronics and the lure of the now. The least harmful drug in Spring Breakers is anything you actually ingest. And sex is virtually dream-like in the face of what the words “Spring Break” actually turn out to mean to our violence-hungry, thrill-seeking main characters. [B+]