Thursday, July 11, 2013

Spring Breakers: My Not-So-Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Spring Breakers
US, 2012
Written and Directed by Harmony Korine

As a tee-totaling, antisocial nerd, I find it hard to imagine real people wanting to go to Spring Break even half as badly as the characters in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers do, but from early on, it's clear that we've left the real world behind. The slow-motion, fluid-soaked world Korine depicts on screen bears little resemblance to reality, but a break from the "real" is just what the protagonists hope to find in the Florida sun.  For them, "Spring Break" has become both a byword for freedom, and an excuse to live a life they've only dreamed of or seen on TV. In that regard, they've long since parted ways with reality, and the film goes on to examine how the appropriation of cultural images can obscure the line between the real and the unreal with dangerous consequences.

The story, such as it is, involves four childhood friends (Faith, Cotty, Candy, and Brittany, played by Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson, respectively) who want nothing more than to escape their dull college for Spring Break. Faith, as her name suggests, is the most morally-grounded and naive of the four. She attends church services (run by wrestler Jeff Jarrett!) and seems uncomfortable whenever the others stray too far into recklessness. To her, the appeal of Spring Break is as much spiritual as physical. Candy and Brittany are the clear bad girls—one of Faith's church friends even says they have "devil's blood"—who see Spring Break as a license to abandon both inhibitions and morality. Cotty falls somewhere in the middle. This is about as much as characterization as the girls get, since most of our time with them is spent watching them party and drink in largely interchangeable ways to a thrumming but effective Skrillex score.

The girls find themselves too short on cash to make the trip, so they (minus Faith) decide to knock over a local restaurant using hammers and squirt guns painted to look real. "Pretend like it's a video game. Act like you're in a movie or something," Candy says, and this becomes one of several mantras the girls live by as they use their ill-gotten gains to "find themselves" in the Florida sun. There, after a series of blissed-out parties (which they all seem to enjoy) takes a dark turn, the girls encounter rapper/gangster Alien (James Franco, enjoying the hell out of himself), whose seductive charm and bad boy lifestyle will either blow up their fantasy, or cause them to lose themselves even further in the violent fiction of "freedom."

It's usually a fool's errand to guess just what Harmony Korine is trying to say in any of his pictures, often because he's not trying to say anything, only trying to provoke (in this case, by casting formerly squeaky-clean teen idols like Hudgens and Gomez against type). Still, Spring Breakers begs us to project Korine's intentions onto the screen, and the film could alternately be read as celebrating or condemning the bad things the girls get up to. Korine's usual leery eye doesn't help matters, here. But as far as I can tell, Korine is attempting to show (with as little judgment as possible) how our culture of hollow images, materialistic object fetishism, and pop cultural expectations warps our sense of reality.

The film's style contributes to this unreal vibe. Korine circles dreamily around the same repeated beats and turns of phrase, relying on disjointed editing and flashbacks/flashforwards. He employs temporally-indistinct voice-overs that comment on the action on screen, but could well be derived from dialogue in previous or upcoming scenes or even internal monologues, and fills the script with talk of dreams. All of this serves to dislocate and disorient the audience, though I found some of the repetition needless to the point of near-boredom. But maybe that's intentional. We live in a culture that normalizes excess and disorientation to the point of numbness.

As Alien, Franco more or less steals the show, playing the rapper like a cross between Riff Raff and Gary Oldman in True Romance. He takes obvious pride in showing off all the signifiers of his status—guns, drugs, Scarface memorabilia—but the film calls all of this into question. He's a dangerous person, no doubt, but only in so far as this gangsta rap fantasy detaches him from the morality of his actions. Alien isn't just playing a part, he's living one.

The four female leads do a fine job—though none stands out above the others—portraying people more or less under this fantasy's sway, but Korine gives them moments that clearly demonstrate that underneath the skimpy garments, they are still (mentally if not physically) children. Two Britney Spears singalongs hammer this point home. Like Alien, these girls have opted into living images they've seen on screen, images they've been spoon-fed since they were too young to properly contextualize them. This has taken the longing to break free all young adults feel, and twisted it until it snaps.

But ultimately, it's probably not right to say Korine is being wholly critical of this idea or of his characters. He is too focused on titillation and subversion for us to be sure he isn't also enjoying the fantasy to some extent. And, more importantly, he's a little too enamored of his own words and storytelling style. Subtlety has never been his strong suit, but I didn't need to hear Candy say "Seeing all this money makes my p***y wet" to get his gist. And the film's hypnotic rhythms and distancing techniques, meant to show the characters' trance-like mental state, call too much attention to themselves, potentially breaking our engagement with the film.

In the end I was left feeling lukewarm towards Spring Breakers. There are great moments here, and the film picks up considerably after Alien comes along, but the drifting narrative and oddly-neutral tone put me off. Perhaps I'm showing my own morality in wishing Korine had been less neutral and more overtly critical, though expecting a sharper satire here would be barking up the wrong tree. Still, the film creates and sustains an admirably eerie, dreamlike tone that does suit its themes, and the good parts probably outweigh the bad. But given that Spring Breakers is a film wrapped up in the treachery of images, I wish the lingering image it left in my mind were something devastating or profound, rather than that of bikini-clad women in ski masks holding guns.


  1. The film paints a fairly accurate portrait of this generation we all live in and at the same time, making a comment. For that bold step, the movie deserves praise. Nice review.

    1. Thanks! I agree, though I think that praise should be measured. It's not perfect, and it walks a thin line that a lot of people will say it crosses, but I did mostly like it.