Harmony Korine has pulled one of the greatest bait and switches in film history. The advertising for Spring Breakers was expertly designed to lure in teenagers and twenty-somethings with the promise of a wild T&A party movie a la Project X. Well, in a way it delivers on that promise. It gives audiences the nudity and the chaos that is expected from a film like this, but it doesn’t feel quite right. It feels dirty and wrong, as grimy as the drops in its dubstep soundtrack. It’s a college T&A movie, but it’s not the one most people want.
The film opens with four college-aged friends, Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachael Korine) trying to figure out how to raise the money they need to go to Florida for spring break. While Faith attends Bible study (and is warned of how wild Candy and Brit are), the other three rob a local restaurant and make off with enough cash to hop a bus to St. Petersburg.
After a night of partying the group is arrested for possession of cocaine, but they are quickly let go when the evidence doesn’t hold. They then meet rapper/drug dealer Alien (James Franco) who promises to show them a good time, but instead acts as the gateway to a criminal underworld.
Make no mistake Spring Breakers is an arthouse film. To those familiar with writer/director Harmony Korine this is no surprise, but for those who have never heard of him I’ll just say that he’s responsible for a movie called Trash Humpers (and that title should be taken literally).
One aspect of the film that has turned off a lot of audiences is that it plays out like a deranged nightmare. The editing is choppy and nonlinear, full of droning narration repeating phrases like “Pretend it’s like a video game” and “spring break forever” ad nauseum, digging them deeper into your skin with each reframe. It’s like something made by the Bizarro World version of Terrence Malick.
But the editing serves a purpose. Franco’s constant whispering of “spring break” casts a dark specter over the film. Spring break becomes this sinister concept where hypersexuality reigns and oppresses. Women seductively suck on lollipops, men hold beer bottles to their crotches, everybody’s drunk and looking for sex. But to the audience it isn’t titillating. It feels disgusting and perverted. Were this exact footage being shown on MTV or in a Girls Gone Wild video it would be praised and even enforced. But in Spring Breakers it becomes dark and twisted. The veil covering the rape culture of spring break is torn down and revealed for what it is.
Spring Breakers may be the most purely American film of the 21st century thus far. It’s an exploration into excess and greed that shows a depravity that makes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas look like a family vacation. Korine holds a mirror to us, the college kids who partake in this yearly ritual of hedonism and debauchery. Of sex and violence. He shoves our faces in our mess. We made our bed and now we must sleep in it.
Some may disagree with me on this, and I wholly understand it. I’ve read several reviews from critics who found the film to be incredibly sexist, and I’m sure plenty more people are going to see it and feel the same way. Harmony Korine has always been as aware of social issues (as in Kids) as he has been intrigued and in admiration of those who indulge in their most primal instincts (the aforementioned Trash Humpers), and Spring Breakers is a bit of both.
The characters of Candy and Brit are sociopaths who show no remorse for their actions. They always want to dig deeper and deeper into the underworld of spring break. They lead their friends, and the audience, on a Heart of Darkness-esque descent into Hell, each step of the way peeling back another layer of the sex-violence conglomeration.
The film’s climax feels like the bastard child of Girls Gone Wild, Grand Theft Auto, and Michael Mann. “Pretend it’s like a video game” becomes words to live by. “Spring break forever” becomes a mantra. Candy and Brit are the people that the spring break lifestyle is made for. They’re the ones without empathy, who care nothing about the dignity of others, who have no regard for human life. They only want to satisfy their own selfish desires.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that Spring Breakers has been misrepresented in its advertising. Those going in hoping for something fun and light are going to be sordidly disappointed and they may not know why. They’ll say it’s because of the unconventional free-flow narrative. They’ll say it’s because it’s too dark and creepy. But hopefully it’s because they’ve finally been shown the true darkness hidden within the culture they’ve come to idolize, and that takes time to digest.