“Spring break.... Spring break forrreverrrrrrr.”
This phrase, spoken by James Franco’s Alien, repeats in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, but it’s not a wild chant. It’s an intonation, a prayer. It’s the key to the film’s bizarre mindset.
Korine’s movie is one part arthouse, one part exploitation. It’s not particularly groundbreaking in either category - I’ve seen more esoteric films and I’ve seen more visceral films - but it’s the median it occupies between the two that feels unique. Crowd-pleasing enough to escape the art theaters, cerebral enough to hook in the film snobs, Spring Breakers straddles the growing intellectual divide in our modern cinema, creating something at once vibrant and smart, a societal critique that allows us to slightly revel in that which it is critiquing.
Four school girls - and they are girls, wearing puppy shirts and doing gymnastics in their dorm hallway - want to go on spring break. They’re horrified by their middle class existence, by the routine of their classes, by the mundanity of life. They’re empty, hollow people, part of an empty, hollow generation. Korine makes this point early and savagely: two of the girls sit bored in a lecture while the teacher talks about how black soldiers returned home from WWII to fight for their equal rights. The girls draw pictures of penises in their notebooks and write “SPRING BREAK!” Other generations fought for things. This one is ready to fight for their right to party.
And they do fight for it. The quartet is short on money for the trip, so they stage a fairly daring and violent robbery. Then they’re off to St. Petersburg, where the dream is real. Hot bodied kids chug and dance and fuck and piss in the streets. They’re transported to heaven, a heaven from which Korine always keeps us at arm’s length. Selena Gomez does a breathy, ethereal voice over explaining how wonderful spring break is while images play of a modern Gomorrah, an almost hellish Caligulan scenario of untamed, idiotic debauchery.
But heaven has a dark side, and the girls get busted at a party where the coke is flowing freely up noses. They spend the night in jail, wearing only their bikinis. Their lives seem ruined. And then a guardian angel appears, a man who claims to be not of this planet, a white boy rapper with crusty dreds and awful tattoos, Alien.
This is where the film suddenly comes alive. The four Spring Breakers are interesting, but it’s James Franco who provides the throbbing life to the movie. He is simply incredible, giving a balls-draining performance that’s part comedy, part pathos, completely unfettered and insane. Alien is a Florida rapper and self-proclaimed G who relishes his life of criminal mediocrity. Spring Breakers’ most quotable scene (and this is a highly quotable movie) has Alien crying ‘Look at all my sheeeyit!’ while cataloging the fairly banal contents of his bedroom. He has shorts, in every color. He has Calvin Klein fragrances, so he smells nice. He has Scarface playing, on infinite repeat.
Franco throws himself fully into Alien, and the character is realized so completely that you lose sight of Franco within him. What’s most surprising is the sweet vulnerability in him; while Alien first appears to be some sort of predator, it turns out he’s actually a romantic and a kind of honorable, lovable guy - in his own moronic, low expectations way.
Alien sweeps the girls up into his world, and soon they find themselves spending a spring break week robbing the locals and getting into a beef with Alien’s former mentor, Archie, played by trap artist Gucci Mane. Things spiral out of control.
But it isn’t the crime that propels Spring Breakers. Korine has created a semi-elliptical style that swirls you in and out of the action, with images sometimes dissolving into impressionistic fuzz and sometimes going hyper-HD and slomo. The thing I find strangest about Spring Breakers is that Korine never truly lets us in; everything is shot in such a way as to be slightly disassociating, to keep us out of the visceral inclusion that makes Alien’s favorite film, Scarface, such a gangsta classic. Even as Spring Breakers gets to be its craziest, the audience always feels like an observer, never a participant.
Which is fitting, because Korine is not celebrating the antics of spring break. There’s an opening sequence of shining, topless boys and girls partying on a beach in exquisite slomo and it doesn’t make you want to be there. Their dancing seems one step removed from the writhing of the damned. But this is America, Korine says - hedonistic pleasure seekers who ignore anything of value while salivating over the most banal physical commodities. No one in Spring Breakers is looking to transcend their world. These are people who believe, honestly, that Britney Spears is a poet of our time.
There was a lot of buzz over the casting of the spring breaker girls; Korine chose actresses whose public personas were sure to create a bunch of cognitive dissonance. His script is structured in a way to give each of the quartet their own segment. First up is Selena Gomez, whose Faith is the good girl of the group, who wants to have fun but is troubled by the trip’s fast descent into criminality. Korine cast his own wife, Rachel, as the real party girl of the group, Cotty. She has a scene where she’s topless, soaked in beer, cavorting in a room with a bunch of frat bros that is like a dissection of how date rape simply and quickly happens. Then there’s Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson as Candy and Brit, the real bad girls of the group, the true soulmates to Alien. They form a Bonnie and Bonnie and Clyde relationship that creates the film’s most electrifying moments.
Each of the actresses is strong; Korine throws you into their world and lives without much explanation, trusting that you’ll be patient enough to allow their personalities to reveal themselves over the course of the movie. The actresses are all great, but they’re matched up against Franco, who is so good as to defy easy explanation. They’re all typhoons and he’s some kind of fucking global superstorm, destroying everything.
Harmony Korine has never been a favorite of mine; Gummo is a movie that still makes me break out in hives just from thinking on it too much. But Spring Breakers is like a breakthrough for him, allowing him to focus on the kind of wasted fringe-types he likes while also making a movie that’s accessible to a larger audience. Is Spring Breakers a party movie? Yes, but that party is a raging kegger, and it’s happening amidst the ashes of Western civilization.