Spring Breakers is a tough, brilliant, and devastatingly powerful chameleon of a movie. It occupies opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum, simultaneously challenging and beautiful in its simplicity. Writer/director Harmony Korine has given us perhaps the most artful inspection of our current times, a steadfast yet nonjudgmental gaze into the abyss of contemporary youth culture and the sandblasted remains of the American Dream.
Like most great ringmasters, Mr. Korine populates his stage with grand spectacle, enlisting the help of DP Benoît Debie (frequent partner of auteur Gaspar Noé) to paint a stunning portrait of the world of contradictions Korine’s teenagers inhabit. The visual landscape of Spring Breakers is at once alluring and terrifying, poignant and meaningless, dream-like and nightmarish (much as I’m loathe to admit it, Skrillex also provides a spot-on original score). The sun-bleached hedonism on display pulls us back and forth over the line that separates longing from revulsion, patiently reeling the audience into a seemingly idyllic pleasure island that hides darker undercurrents.
To this same end, Korine has selected four actresses who themselves are products of America’s obsession with the duality of youthful innocence and titillating sexuality. Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine (the director’s wife) are breathing representations of the transition between youthful naïveté and the wholesale rejection of morality in the pursuit of happiness. All are serviceable, but special praise should be reserved for Hudgens and Gomez, who, as alumni of the Disney school of teen princesses, are as likely to be condemned rather than praised for embracing what are sure to be controversial roles in a film that is guaranteed to be dismissed, if not outright rejected by most of their fanbase and professional contacts.
The undisputed show-stealer award, however, must go to James Franco. What are we to make of his character, Alien, rapper, hedonist, and unrepentant criminal? In the hands of a lesser director, Alien might be presented as a tragic figure, but Korine refuses to make pronouncements about any of his characters’ places in the moral tapestry. Rather, Alien, and by a lesser extent, his cadre of female followers, are neutral players in a long race to what’s perceived as the bottom, but, in the context of a culture ripped of any meaning and true creative enterprise, becomes the apex of success. It’s no mistake that, in a scene sure to be quoted by cult followers for years to come, Franco cavorts around his bedroom, MTV Cribs style, showing off bundles of cash, designer clothing, assault weapons, and, in the most obvious satirizing of the consumer-takes-all attitude celebrated and engendered by shows like Cribs and the stars that inhabit them, “Scarface on motherfuckin’ repeat”.
At first glance it might be easy to mistake Alien as a latter-day minstrel show exhibit; a clownish buffoon whose organic obsession with the trappings of hip hop culture makes him ripe for ridicule. However, the takeaway from the whole of Spring Breakers is not an indictment of a subculture that eschews things of true value in favor of empty materialism, but rather a supposition: when a society strips itself of meaning, is there any true measure of success, and by extension, fulfillment beyond the systematic destruction of established values? As Alien tells the girls when relating his life story, “I just wanted to be bad.” When every opportunity to be good has withered away, after all, what’s left?
This nihilistic approach to a life that can know no other achievements runs parallel to the one taken by our quartet of co-eds, who earlier in the film have unflinchingly robbed a restaurant in order to finance their trip to Florida. Candy, Brit, and Cotty have no hesitations about embracing crime in order to escape the drab trappings and tedious partying of their Kentucky college town, and Faith (Gomez) shows only the slightest hesitation at joining the escapades. From there, it’s a non-stop orgy of beach, booze, drugs, nudity, and non-stop partying, broken up only by arriving police who temporarily place a damper on all the fairy-tale good times and bouts of supposed self-discovery (those young enough to remember their own Spring Break days in high school and/or college might recall the feeling of connection and rightness that accompanied those first forays into excess).
Alien comes to the rescue and bails the girls out, briefly giving them the highlights of his life story and then acts as a tour guide for a trip deeper into the party pits of South Florida, which “good Christian” girl Faith immediately balks at. She hops on a bus back home and the rest of the crew goes about their merry way. From here, the plot blossoms into full on fable mode, complete with a mysterious feud between former best friends Alien and Archie (played with appropriate dumb menace by Gucci Mane) that snatches another of the group away until only the wildest of the bunch, Brit and Candy, are left to help Alien with his last-ditch run at glory in a climactic storm on Archie’s estate.
When the smoke clears and the bullets are all spent, we’re left with an appropriately anticlimactic ending. The destination of all the drama, seediness, dark murmurings, and brash proclamations comes down to nothing more than a few dead bodies on a cool Florida night, with nowhere else to go but somewhere far away. Brit and Candy, who have spent most of the film trapped in various throes of malicious glee, leave the land of St. Petersburg Florida as conquerors, accompanied only by the low hum of Archie’s stolen sports car as they speed off into the night.
As the credits roll, we ponder the grotesque, beautiful savagery of the film we just sat through, and what it says to our generation, mired in every possible incarnation of sound and fury we could think to cloak ourselves with. Spring Breakers is not an empty echo chamber for the rattlings of youth gone wild on excess, nor is it a ham-fisted morality play about the dangers and tragedy of a world stripped of meaning and goals. Rather, Korine seeks to draw us into the world that’s sprung up so gradually around us we might not recognize it at first glance. In that same scene of celebration and self-affirmation, Alien jumps around his bedroom demanding that the girls (and by extension, the audience) “Look at my shit!” What goals and values do we have left, and what physical manifestations are held up as tokens of success? It’s a question Spring Breakers asks of the audience, but steadfastly refuses to answer, perhaps because there is no satisfactory response as of the time of this writing.
Spring Breakers is a tour de force of beauty, tragedy, horror, comedy, and the grand illusion of happiness. It’s easy to dismiss Korine’s film as snide and ironic lip service to a generation going down the toilet, but closer inspection reveals a comedian hinting at very real fallout with very damaging results. As he proudly casts an eye (wrapped in mirrored sunglasses) over his worldly kingdom, Alien, in one of his more lucid moments, proclaims “This is the American dream,” a line that produces as many shudders as it does laughter. Do we need to tremble for what might be, or should we weep for what already is?