Starring James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens
Directed By: Harmony Korine
After nearly 20 years in the film industry, beginning with his screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids in 1995, Harmony Korine has made what’s easily his most accessible and straightforward film since his daring debut. However, bear in mind that this comparison comes in regards to the avant-garde works like Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy that the director made his name on. In this run Korine is working with a cavalcade of teen stars including High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens, Disney starlet Selena Gomez, Pretty Little Liars’ Ashley Benson and Harmony Korine’s own wife, Rachel Korine.
Spring Breakers is still a mess, a hot mess in fact. It’s not unlike some wild party from your college days that you only vaguely remember and you’re not quite sure whether you had a good time or not, only that it was crazy. There also may or not be some things you’d rather not remember. With a complete lack of a moral center Korine takes the viewer into a world of youth and hedonism wrought with the invincibility that comes with being young in contrast to the obligations of a mundane reality.
The film breaks open with a montage that seems as though some frat-star with delusions of art-house grandeur made a music video for their favorite dubstep artist. In fact, the whole film carries itself with a perverse uncomfortable swagger that suits the squelching bass drops and candy coated neon synthesizers. Our gang of young college co-eds, (I hesitate to call them protagonists as all of the characters are fairly depraved), are planning a spring break trip but are unable to scrounge up the necessary cash. Without the knowledge of their devoted Christian friend, Faith (in a strong performance by Selena Gomez) they rob the local chicken shack and make their way to sunny Florida.
Cue the debauchery. Korine makes use of sweeping camera work, saturated colors, neon lighting and home video to put together stomach-churning bouts of revelry. While one could make the case that these depictions of partying are certainly exploitative to a degree, the movie consistently stops short of glorifying it. Instead opting for a voyeuristic vibe that makes the audience feel embarrassed for the people on screen and aghast that at one point, that might have been them.
Whilst on their trip the girls end up at the wrong party and on the wrong side of the law, only to find themselves bailed out by Alien, the gangster with a heart of gold in what’s honestly a somewhat brilliant performance by James Franco. Alien, no matter what you’ve heard, is basically an amalgam of internet rap sensation Riff Raff and Gary Oldman’s Drexel from True Romance. Franco’s performance as Alien is simply delicious, with an affected Southern drawl mixing equal parts of panhandle twang and street corner swag. In fact, he’s the only actor that gets the accent right. The four other leads drop “y’alls” like so many dollar bills on a club floor that it feels forced and fake.
After their brush with the law and rolling to Alien’s local haunts Faith decides she’s had enough and exits the film early, which, given Gomez’s normally squeaky-clean image, is not surprising. The other three stay to party with their new gangster pal and become part of Alien’s crew and things devolve from there. The newly formed clique begins a reign of terror as they stick up countless Florida residents and fellow vacationers.
This introduces us to the film debut of rapper and real life trap-star Gucci Mane in a terrifying, understated debut as the local drug lord, Archie, and we're clued into his apparent ongoing beef with Alien over who really runs the Florida streets. It seems Alien and the girls have been kicking up too much heat for Archie's taste and he aims to do something about it. You can tell pretty early on that things probably won’t end well for someone.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the film would be its complete lack of focus as to what message it’s trying to push forward from among the deluge of hyper-kinetic images. Is it the importance of family punctuated by the awkward calls home to the parents saying everything is okay when it so clearly isn't? Maybe, the application of faith as a moral compass given Gomez's relatively unscathed time on screen? Or is it simply indicative of the foolhardy invincibility of the YOLO generation? Korine shifts the focus so often that he seems unable to nail down what exactly he’s trying to say amidst his collage of T&A. The result is a fascinating spectacle of day-glo depravity and sybaritism.
This isn't to say the film is without a few shining moments, particularly evidenced in a moving montage of violence and friendship set to the Britney Spears' immortal ballad, "Everytime." Kid you not, this is easily the best thing that happens in this film, by far.
I wish there was some larger, grandiose statement on modern youth culture being made here, but if there is it’s difficult to discern from the wash of sex and violence that permeates the film. Although on many levels just as challenging as his other work, Spring Breakers fails to make the same kind of profound statements seen in Korine’s earlier films that and as a result traps this movie firmly in the realm of trashy exploitation that will be watched by all the wrong people, for all the wrong reasons. But maybe that was the plan all along.