Vicious, strange, off-putting, and voyeuristic, Spring Breakers becomes provocative and oddly compelling, and thrives under brilliant cinematography, an unpredictable melancholy tone, and game performances from its cast. As lurid as it is luminous, as ludicrous as it is stylish, it may be empty, but it sends you off on an unforgettable high.
On the surface, the story delves into spring break nastiness and overflows with sins of the flesh. The character development is far from surprising: it is downright predictable. Faith is the first to leave; a second only leaves after getting shot. Director Harmony Korine embraces every opportunity to flaunt the curves of his wife, Rachel, and former Disney stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. Their willingness to take on these roles, including Hudgens’ late-act threesome with Ashley Benson and James Franco, do more than leave their days of innocence in the past; they crush them to dust.
But this intuitively chilling reality is only the beginning. The presentation behind the content betrays a darker and more profound intention. Sometimes revolting in its explicitness, the film acts as the most accurate portrayal of teenage depravity that has graced the silver screen in many years. The dialogue is laced with stinging voiceovers and empty attempts at self-denial. Korine uses the camera as a weapon, shoving the audience’s face into the down-and-dirty details of spring break hedonism. He is not celebrating or condemning these lifestyles; he is presenting them at face value, without sheen. Korine may hate his characters, but he does not judge them.
If the characters are initially simplistic (Gomez’ Christian is named Faith), they are ironically meant to be: the hundreds of students that flock to Florida seeking to escape the boredom of college can, on some level, be appropriately characterized in the same way. Korine shoots the film like an MTV commercial, with flash cuts and hallucinatory images and editing. The colours are brash and almost violent in their brightness. There are heaping amounts of sex, drugs, and alcohol. There is so much jarring nudity that it feels like an assault on the senses. Korine employs Memento-style time jumps to avoid standstill, but this also works to emphasize duality.
However, beyond its powerful social commentary and its epitomizing of the perfect desperation of its subjects, Spring Breakers has two other tricks up its sleeve. The first is Franco’s bravura and captivating performance as the unhinged Alien. Franco has established a reputation for being an actor prepared to take risks, but as the gold-teethed, foul-mouthed, leering saviour of the girls, he has outdone himself.
The second ace is the string of memorable scenes involving Franco. Much may be said about a film that features so many bikinis. Yet a film that includes Franco as a rapper, playing and singing a Britney Spears song, on a white poolside piano, with a sunset in the background, while a trio of gun-toting girls dance around in pink ski-masks, is at least doing something unique. It is this insane courage that demands respect.
Similarly, a scene between Alien and Faith is an unsettling demonstration of manipulation, as Alien tries to coax Faith into staying with soft words and feathery touches. But the most memorable may be a montage in which Alien displays his weaponry and home furnishings to Hudgens and Benson, screaming “Look at my shit!” as he alternatively points to his bottles of tanning oil and Calvin Klein cologne. It hearkens to the materialism warnings of Fight Club and American Beauty.
Fittingly, film about shattered expectations has shattered expectations. It takes itself too seriously to be dismissed as simple exploitation. Given the film’s eerie undertow, it’s no surprise that the hedonism turns eventually into nihilism. The final scene delivers real consequences in spectacular fashion: the girls reminisce about “finding themselves” as they slaughter Alien’s rival kingpin inside his beachside mansion.
Breakers is undeniably trashy. But it is entertaining, fascinating, thought-provoking, glorious trash. It is an impeccably constructed fantasia on youth culture, all the more cutting as a satire because it is so superficially handsome. It is indisputably the best thing Harmony Korine has ever done, and may be condoned as a flawed and sloppy masterpiece, singlehandedly creating a new genre: arthouse porn. It’s a work of twisted genius.