Admittedly I’m having a difficult time sorting through my feelings about “Spring Breakers.” To call it half incredible and half annoying sounds hyperbolic and doesn’t tell you anything real about the film, but walking out of the theater, that sums up my reaction. If it feels like indie auteur Harmony Korine (“Kids,” “Gummo,” “Trash Humpers”) made a modern sexploitation movie about bikini girls with machine guns in the vein of a Monte Hellman flick, then you’d be right, because that’s precisely what this is. The film alternately screams and whispers “Spring Break,” in both a literal and metaphorical sense, for the entire run time.
“Spring Breakers” is a strange mixture of frenetic T&A—think uncensored footage from MTV’s coverage of college kids yearly pilgrimage to Florida—and all the ecstatic mayhem that brings, with a low-budget art house sensibility, and all he pretention that involves. Slow-motion shots of jiggling boobs butt up against grainy frames of young women, one hand pressed against the window of a Greyhound bus as they stare into the distance, maybe the future. That kind of shit.
“Spring Breakers” is a continual juxtaposition of these two aesthetics. On occasion the result it great, but there are just as many instances where an exasperated sigh is likely. Korine gets points for his attempts at deconstruction, and casting former Disney princesses Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens as good-girls-gone-wrong is a nice touch. He made a movie that appeals to audiences wide and small, and that provides a critical look at society at the same time the film wallows in what he purports to pick apart.
Four small-town college girls—Faith (Gomez), Candy (Hudgens), Britt (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine)—are bored as hell and need to get their asses down to St. Pete for spring-mother-fucking-break. There’s nothing to do, everyone else is gone, and anything less is unacceptable. Problem is, they’re short of funds, and the modest amount they’ve been able to save isn’t going to get them anywhere near their destination. Candy, Britt, and Cotty, however, are thinkers, just full of ideas. What do they do? They knock over a fried chicken joint in an El Camino. Problem solved, crisis averted.
Now they’re hard-ass ballers with a taste for the outlaw life. When they get to spring break it’s like they’ve found the life they’ve been meant to live all along. That is, if you like shirtless dudes, girls in their underwear, and a nonstop partying. After the usual honeymoon period, things take the expected dark turn. The girls get arrested for cocaine possession, and fall in with an unsavory character named Alien, played by James Franco.
There’s not a ton of characterization in “Spring Breakers.” You have a better sense of the girls as a group rather than as individuals. As tough and callous as they act, moments like an impromptu Brittney Spears sing-a-long—the first of two times in the film when this happens—while swigging out of paper covered bottles of booze in a quickie mart parking lot, remind you just how young and naïve they are. Out of the core group, Faith is the most individual, and her pious leanings give her pause. Early on a cool-guy preacher, played by professional wrestler Jeff Jarrett, tells her that every time God tempts you he also provides an out, but you have to be willing to escape when you can. She’s the first to bail on the sinking ship that is spring break.
While Gomez has the most to chew on, character wise, she’s still rather boring. Hudgens, on the other hand, makes the most of her performance. Candy is the anti-Faith. A sly, knowing grin on her face, she embraces her inner badness at every opportunity, and it’s impossible not to watch her blend of raw sexuality and young energy. She’s the kind of girl you’re in love with, despite the fact that you know damn well that’s she’s bad news all day long. Almost hypnotic, you want to follow her to the bowels of hell, and do, and she’s definitely left her previous persona behind.
The two other girls are interchangeable and not particularly interesting, but it’s Franco who really owns “Spring Breakers.” Bat-shit wild, when he shows up, everything changes, for the girls, for the movie, for you sitting in your seat. Alien is a two-bit-hood playing kingpin. A burgeoning rapper, he has a bad dollar sign tattoo on his neck to go with the blurry pot leaf on the back of his hand. All white-boy cornrows and blinding glare off of his blinged out grill, Franco is at his peak here. At different times he’s hilarious, skeevy, sinister, and even surprisingly vulnerable. Between this and his turn in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” Franco has put together a couple of really fun, though mismatched roles this year. Where else in life do you get to jump on a bed covered with guns and cash, imploring the girls, “look at my shit?”
As fun as “Spring Breakers” is, the film never progresses too far beyond what it appears to be on the surface. There are enough stylistic flourishes and Korine’s trademark strangeness throughout to remind you that this is supposed to be something more than simple exploitation. As much as it tries to pick apart the youth culture of today, the callous disregard, impulses towards immediate gratification, and so much more, the film never succeeds completely. And that’s fine, and you have to applaud it for ambition. You can fully dig into the critical side of the film, but when that grows tiresome, you can sit back and drink in the absurd eye candy.
You can tell that Korine wants this to be something much greater—a generation defining moment like some critics claim “Kids” was—but the pace drags near the end, buried under the weight of artistic drive, and at 90 minutes, it’s manages to be overlong. Not to mention that around the middle point, you’re not sure if you can physically take another second of slow motion partying. If you cut out all tracking crowd shots full of topless coeds and shirtless frat guys with beer bongs, “Spring Breakers” would clock in at around the 40 minute mark.
This is easily the most I’ve ever enjoyed one of Korine’s movies. While I can appreciate what he does and the things he attempts, I don’t generally enjoy watching his films. It could be a fun adventure to sit outside theaters where “Spring Breakers” is playing just to see the befuddlement on people’s faces as they leave. Expectations are certainly going to be subverted. Uneven as it is, the whole movie is worth it for the scene of James Franco, in full ghetto-fabulous splendor, sitting at an outdoor piano, playing a Brittney Spears ballad as the sun sets over Florida.