Directed by: Harmony Korine.
Written by: Harmony Korine.
Starring: Selena Gomez (Faith), Vanessa Hudgens (Candy), Ashley Benson (Brit), Rachel Korine (Cotty), James Franco (Alien), Gucci Mane (Archie), Heather Morris (Bess).
The key line in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is spoken early - “Just pretend like it’s a video game. Just act like it’s a motherfucking movie”. The line is used by one girl to another just before they rob the chicken shack in order to fund their Spring Break in St. Petersburg Florida. What follows directly after that line is undoubtedly the greatest single shot of 2013 so far, and the best Korine has ever put on film – as two girls go in the back door of the Chicken Shack, a third drives slowly around the building to pick them up on the other side. We see the robbery framed through the windows of the restaurant – in effect, becoming a movie within the movie. It’s also telling which of the two girls go into the Chicken Shack, which one watches the movie within the movie, and which one is entirely absent from the event – it helps to explain why they do what they do later in the movie. But why “Just pretend it’s a video game. Just act like it’s a motherfucking movie” is the key line in Spring Breakers is simple – practically every character will act like it’s a “motherfucking movie” for the entirety of Spring Breakers running time. Not just the four girls at the heart of the movie, and not just Alien (James Franco), the white, cornrowed, blinged out, grill wearing rapper/drug dealer they meet, but everyone. The first shots of the movie show us scenes from spring break, with a variety of young, hot women in various stages of undress, gyrating on men as they pour alcohol all over their bodies. It’s just a slightly more explicit music video Korine is making at the beginning – and he’ll return to the images throughout the movie. Whether it’s a video game, movie, or music video, everyone in Spring Breakers is taking their cue from some sort of pop culture item. Because that’s the way you’re supposed to act on spring break, right?
Spring Breakers is a deliberate provocation from Harmony Korine, who has spent his entire career provoking strong reactions from audiences. Up until now, he’s been content making his provocations in the indie-art world in films like Gummo (1997), julien-donkey boy (1999), Mister Lonely (2007) and Trash Humpers (2009). But with Spring Breakers, he has broken through into the mainstream – deliberately. He casts a movie star like James Franco, Disney Princesses Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, and one of the Pretty Little Liars – Ashley Bensen. As many have pointed out, thematically, Spring Breakers isn’t all that different from his last film – the deliberately ugly Trash Humpers, a movie I hated – thinking the film was boring and repetitive in the extreme, even while I admired Korine for making exactly the film he wanted to make. In Spring Breakers, he makes some similar points, but has found a way to do so in a much more entertaining and satisfying movie. I was bored by Trash Humpers, because it was in essence the same thing in scene after scene. In Spring Breakers, I was transfixed – I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. As soon as it ended, I wanted to see it again.
The movie stars Selena Gomez as Faith – who we first meet in a prayer group at the University she goes to. She is, in essence, a good girl, who gets a thrill hanging out with the bad girls – and pretending to be one sometimes. Her friends are Candy (Hudgens) and Brit (Bensen), who we first meet in class – ignoring a lecture on the Civil Rights movement, while one writes on her notepad “I want penis”, and the other draws a penis and pretends to suck it. The subject of the lecture is no coincidence – throughout the movie, the largely white characters will adopt much of African American culture, without knowing the history behind it. They remain deliberately ignorant of it. Their fourth friend is Cotty (Rachel Korine), who exists somewhere between Faith and Candy/Brit.
Everyone is going on spring break, and the girls plan on going to – but don’t have enough money. Hence the robbery of the Chicken Shack. The four girls then go to St. Petersburg, and much of the first half of the movie seems like one wild party – something akin to last year’s Project X – as it is a non-stop orgy of drinking, drugs and excess. Then the four girls wind up in jail. And the only person willing to bail them out is Alien (Franco) – who sees them there, and decides to take them under his wing so to speak. And quickly, things spin completely out of control.
Alien is the most fascinating character in the film, and is easily the best performance of James Franco’s career. There is something undeniably creepy about him from his first scene – and the scene where he attempts to seduce Selena Gomez was, for me anyway, the most disturbing scene in the entire movie (especially his closing line – “If you want to go home, go home. But your friends are staying. And when I’m with them, I’ll be thinking about you”). The scene is brilliant played by Franco – and easily gets you to believe Gomez when she has said in interviews about this film that Franco scared her when they were filming. Her reaction in this scene is also wonderful – so scared are not, it was worth it. Franco is also brilliant in a later scene, where he commands “Look at my stuff”. Scarface on the TV on repeat. Guns, drugs and money galore. What’s the point of having it all, if you cannot show it off.
The other key moments in Spring Breakers are a pair of disturbing Britney Spears sing alongs. First, it’s the four girls by themselves, drunk in a party lot singing Spears’ breakout hit – Hit Me Baby, One More Time – which because of the video, which sexualized the then teenage Spears to an almost obscene degree, made her a star. This moment kick starts a disturbing re-enactment of the crime that funded their trip – this time, we’ll loop around and see it from inside the restaurant – the terror of the employees and customers real this time, and not so movie like. And later in the film, Alien will sing with the three remaining girls a shockingly sincere version of Spears’ “Everytime” – which really kick starts the orgy of violence that ends the film.
Spring Breakers has already generate a fair degree of controversy for the levels of sex and violence on display in the movie – and how the movie both seems to be reveling in excess, and criticizing that same excess. In how the movie seems to decry the sexualization of young women, while also exploiting those same young women. All of this is somewhat true – Spring Breakers is a movie full of contradictions. But how else do you want Korine to address the issues? Whether we want to admit it or not, young female celebrities like Gomez, Hudgens and Benson have already been sexualized by our society. These are smart young women, who are using Korine to help break out of the image people have of them, while Korine uses them to up the kink and controversy factor. Gomez’s image really shouldn’t be affected by Spring Breakers - she remains an innocent in the movie, even if she dons a bikini, drinks a few beers and –shock! – smokes a cigarette. Perhaps because she’s a few years farther away from her own Disney franchise – High School Musical – Hudgens seems more willing to smash her good girl image here – she has two of the more shocking scenes in the movie – the first when she and Bensen turn the tables on Franco with his guns, and then of course, the over the top violent climax. While it is true that none of the girls are really fully formed characters, I think that’s by design, and isn’t really a flaw in the movie. They are all – actresses and characters – essentially good girls playing bad – it’s just a matter of what each consider too far – if anything.
Korine isn’t interested in moralizing in Spring Breakers. He throws everything at the screen to try and provoke a response from the audience. Yes, the film can be said to be contradictory, but again, I think that’s by design. Perhaps at 40, Korine is getting too old to simply try and shock the audience – to be an enfant terrible if you will. But Spring Breakers is strangely a maturation for him. Easily the best film Korine has ever done, it is the type of film I have been expecting him to make for 15 years now. Korine has once again made precisely the film he wanted to make – something that I have said about every one of previous films, even when I hated them. This time though, he’s made a film people (or at least me) actually want to watch. Spring Breakers is one of the most fascinating, interesting, shocking, disturbing films of the year so far. I can’t wait to see the film again – and to see what Korine has in store for his next film.