Popular perception of spring break recalls a combination of American college kids, topless girls, lots of drinking but, most importantly, lots of sex. This is a combination that has been seen and exploited time and time again by cinema, and it’s also Spring Breakers’ ultimate hook. The gimmick here is the casting of Disney princesses Vanessa Hudgens and Justin Bieber’s ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez as part of a group of four bad, sex frenzied and gun crazy girls (though Gomez plays by far the most innocent one of the group).
Spring Breakers is a film about four college girls who want to get to Florida for spring break, not only to have a good time but also to escape their suburban lifestyle and see something different. The trip, they hope, will lead them to a self discovery – but all it leads to is a rapid ascent to a life of crime, beginning with a robbery at a restaurant jacked on coke, sporting balaclavas, and armed with a spray gun and a hammer to finance their getaway holiday.
The film comes from the mind of Harmony Korine, in his fifth feature film as a director. Korine’s most celebrated work, however, remains Kids which he did not direct but wrote. In Kids, Korine exposed so disturbingly the reality of drugged up and sexed up high school boys and girls that in the end it almost seemed like an unethical movie. Spring Breakers, much like Kids, could so easily have been shaped as an attack and a propaganda scare tactic aimed at parents to lock up their kids in the style of the patronising low budget films of the forties and fifties. In the end, it’s more like a lush piece of satire which starts off as soft-core porn and ends up being a gangster fantasy film with a videogame shoot-em-up ending.
Indeed, the film constantly proves to be running on satire, with its use of Britney Spears music in key dramatic sequences, by visually matching pistols with My Little Pony balaclavas and with the inclusion of Alien, played by James Franco, a drug dealer rapper who spends a lot of his time showing off the things he owns and the amount of money he has (the line ‘look at my shit’ is as liable to get stuck in one’s head as any of today’s cheesecake radio hits).
Making money for Alien is the ultimate drive, and it’s something he shares with the girls for whom money works as the ultimate aphrodisiac – ‘money makes me so wet’ says one of the girls early on in the film. The introduction of Alien leads the film to a plot, something it lacked for the better part of the first half hour. He is the one who bails the girls out of jail, and they become part of a gang war with another dealer and former friend of Alien’s. The plot, however, is weak and hardly feels like it matters.
Korine’s approach, in fact, is very stylised – too stylised one would thing for the audience that this film hopes to attract. His cinematography and editing techniques recall in a vulgar way Malick’s later works. Even on a narrative aspect, Spring Breakers could be seen as a modern day’s equivalent of the suburban girl’s outlaw romance fantasy portrayed in Malick’s first film Badlands (though the imagery is a far more decadent and far less appealing and consumerism driven equivalent at that).
The sharp switches of both the visual editing recall the disconnected unification of unrelated images of current pop videos, while the sound editing, with its endless repetitions is a product of the digital era and YouTube video time skips. But behind the lush, colourful and cool imagery lies a dark and haunting movie; the juxtaposition is almost unbearably disturbing, also because there seems no way out of it.
The most haunting sequences are the ones where the girls put on goody goody voices in their phone calls to their mothers, telling them about what a great time they are having, what an enlightenment they are experiencing, how everyone they meet is very nice and even more spine chillingly how they want to take them there with them next year. All the while, images of wild parties and orgies, drug taking, drinking and overall degradation play out on the screen. This, for a parent, must be close to being the most nightmarish vision ever portrayed on the screen, but what is most disturbing is that there is no evidence given that the girls do not mean what they say. Could this really be a modern youth’s idea of life fulfilment? If so, what Korine aims to achieve is the baring of all of today’s pop youth culture’s credibility.
Spring Breakers is a sexy nightmarish vision. Alien’s repeated line ‘spring break…spring break forever’ is not a romantic chant, but a frightening threat. Yet, Korine is still not keen on giving the film an ending, and not very keen on letting the film carry a message – all things that ultimately makes the admirable effort seem pointless. To top things off, the characters are all despicable, and there never is a single charming moment.
Sometimes it feels as if this were the ultimate experiment in replicating cinematically a radio pop song – meaningless, rude, cheesy, repetitive, loud, charmless but popular and easy on the eyes or ears (the girls are in their bikinis for virtually the whole length of the film). Other times, however, it feels like an ultimate prank played by Korine on its audience – he gives them exactly what they want, but be careful what you wish for…