It takes balls to make a film that takes disapproving aim at an entire generation. But it takes even bigger balls to fashion one that cleverly disguises itself as an empowerment message for those it’s so visibly perturbed by. Such is the case with Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a chaotic, pulsing napalm bomb of disdain and awe that stares curiously into the hyper-sexed, hard-partying soul of Generation Y America and finds only superficiality and apathy. This is cinema as incisive, subversive social criticism, clad in slutty exploitation clothing and scored to Skrillex.
Following a numbing near-pornographic opening credit sequence of hedonistic beach bash debauchery, Spring Breakers introduces a quartet of vacuous nubile college students – Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine - who yearn only for escape from the tedium of their existence. Financially strapped, the girls turn to armed robbery for cash and book it to Florida, where they become entrenched in the booze-soaked reverie of the annual festivities. Fate takes a turn for the weird, however, when a drug bust inadvertently draws them into the realm of Alien (James Franco), a grilled and blinged-out rapper/gangster with dreams of moving up in the underworld. Soon, the bikini babes are donning ski masks and packing shotguns, giddily intent on living the thug life, the hell with repercussions!
A provocateur from day one, when he penned Larry Clark’s Kids at the age of 19, Korine isn’t a particularly subtle filmmaker (the male gaze is cranked up to intentionally creepy extremes here), yet he is a fearless one. Trapping the audience in his female protagonists’ warped, stunted headspace, he subjects us to their banal thoughts, which are often drearily repetitive, disconnected from reality (“Pretend it’s a video game or a movie!”) or amoral. One sequence features a voice over from Gomez’s Faith – the one sorta-good-girl in the group – wherein she describes the “spiritual” experience she’s having in un-self-aware, trite drivel. Today’s entitled American youth, the director seems to argue, lack imagination and insight, and share no contemporary artistic common ground profounder than Britney Spears (whose auto-tuned anthems feature in two key scenes).
If the film is intriguing in its first half, it becomes utterly entrancing once Franco’s Alien commands center stage. Visually repulsive, slurring his words through a stoned drawl, he’s a true darkly comic original; a societal outcast with a tragic backstory (determining whether its fiction or not is part of the fun) who learned everything he knew from his black crime boss friend (Gucci Mane). Rejoicing in his cliché material possessions – including nunchuks, guns and TVs that play Scarface (of course) on a loop – he’s a clown in wolf’s clothing, unprepared for his new charges’ dangerous detachment from reality. Franco masterfully disappears into the flashy role, and Spring Breakers ignites every time he’s free to cut loose and do his thang.
Korine hasn’t created an easily digestible work here. This is a picture destined to be misinterpreted, ridiculed and dismissed by many. But those tuned into its queasy wavelength will discover likely one of 2013’s most remarkable efforts; a movie that dares you to revel in its gaudy orgy of bad behavior while slyly flipping off those who would do just that. Spring Breakers lives boldly in the moment, and mournfully shakes its head for the future.
4 out of 5
*Originally published in BeatRoute Magazine.