Spring Breakers (2012) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use, and violence throughout
Running Time: 94 min.

Cast: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Gucci Mane
Director: Harmony Korine
Screenplay: Harmony Korine

Review published January 8, 2014

A quartet of female college friends decide they want to head down to St. Pete for spring break, but without money, it all might be a pipe dream. That dream becomes a reality when they decide to steal a car, hold up a diner for enough spending money, and then head out for some hedonistic fun in the sun. While there, they end up getting more action than they bargained for when a drug-dealing thug named Alien (Franco, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) decides to hook up with them after springing them from the local clink after a day of partying too hard. What started out as wild and crazy fun takes a much darker turn, as Alien's life of vice brings out the worst in all of them.

Harmony Korine (Gummo, Mister Lonely) writes and directs this sometimes surreal skewering of amoral youth and the current popular culture of potty-mouthed cartoons, sexualized 'reality' television, glorification of wealth in the news, and abhorrent violence in video games in what ends up being his most straightforward film thus far in his filmography, though that's not exactly saying much given that it's still one of the more polarizing films of the year. Many viewers will be confused how to take much of what they see on the screen -- is this a satire of spring break culture or is it an embrace? Does Korine have contempt for these characters, or admiration?

It takes traversing through nearly half of the movie before the film begins to have some sort of plot structure. Until then, it's more like a "Girls Gone Wild" video, in which normally good girls decide to lose themselves -- to live without conscience -- diving head first into the party atmosphere of mild drugs, alcohol, dancing, carousing, and just living without consequence. But, as they are together, they do feel a protection knowing that whatever happens, their girlfriends will have their backs.

Then we're introduced to the character of Alien, and their plans to party and bond together take a turn, as he becomes obsessed with making the quartet his "special friends", and shows them a life of actual danger, hard drugs, stacks of cash, and real guns.  He's an even more cartoonish Tony Montana, a character whom Alien idolizes, and his bad-boy demeanor and alpha male prowess is both a draw and a repulsion for these impressionable girls who are attracted to the wild life.  James Franco as the mad-hatter gangster/rapper looks like he's relishing every second of outlandishly improvising while playing a completely absurd characterization of a man who is both a clownish buffoon and a cold-hearted menace.

Spring Breakers benefits from Korine's constant infusing of unexpected narrative turns, even when his characters become less and less defined. The young women do seem to have a hive-mind mentality a good deal of the time, though when the stress level gets heavier, they do have their individual breaking points on how much they're willing to indulge in the anarchy.  Faith, the character played by Selena Gomez (Getaway, Hotel Transylvania), is the only one we're given any information on, as we see her engage in her Christian activities.  Her struggle between her desire for meaning within her own faith and her curiosity for doing the things she has been told are wrong all along provides the only interesting conflict as far as the girls themselves are concerned, so it's a disappointment that Korine doesn't explore this more than he does.  The other three girls are fairly interchangeable in terms of personality, and act a good deal of the time like a single entity.

While it's refreshing to see a film with this many prurient pleasures on display have some artistic merit, the turns in their character arcs do some on too suddenly to feel like Korine has mastered anything close to adequate development of personalities.  The film delves into artistic license more than most thrillers, so you're forced to go with Korine's offbeat flow if you want a chance to enjoy the film as a satirical commentary about the state of morality, depravity, and the search for meaning in meaningless things.  In his delve into the party culture of 18-25 year olds, Korine draws from his own youth experience, in which he also had been doing drugs (reportedly including meth, heroin and crack), and eventually cleaned up in rehab when his life went into a tailspin.

The avant-garde visuals add to the dream-like atmosphere, with its popsicle-colored hues and fluorescent lighting schemes.  In addition to the color-drenched visuals, Korine's film benefits from the infusion of pop and electronic music throughout, with its trance-inducing score by Cliff Martinez (Arbitrage, Drive) and Skillrex. Korine is especially fond of referencing another former Disney child actress, Britney Spears, and many will consider Franco's rendition of her, "Everytime" to be one of the film's crazy highlight moments. Rapper Gucci Mane (Confessions of a Thug) also appears in a supporting role as Alien's childhood friend and current adversary, Archie.  In addition to the music, there are sound effects cues laced in between that suggest the ever-present danger and thrills -- the loading and cocking of weapons, and gunshots.

The film is probably more of note for the former Disney actresses -- Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens (Machete Kills, Sucker Punch) -- who decide to go against the grain of their public images by diving head first into one of the more adult films they might choose this side of porn. The young actresses are not only dressed in next to nothing (if not nothing altogether), but some are shown engaging in copious amounts of drinking, drugs, sex, and looting in sometimes violent fashion. Gomez sits out of the more hardcore stuff, as it's written into her character that she's not as amoral as the others.  Still, it's the kind of film one wonders if a tween might be shocked to stumble into when changing cable channels, perhaps stopping to see what a favorite actress is up to.

Korine sets up the spring break experience as a sort of "rite of passage" for many college-age youth, depicting a time in which late teens and early 20-somethings go out to do all of the things they've been taught not to do growing up.  Many consider it an extremely fun time, but, like most who have enjoyed their decadent days, they eventually realize that there isn't much lasting reward to be found in living an entire life of nothing but doing for self, a selfish life represented by the Alien character -- a man who wants to keep the high going forever, but finds that living without consequence also has its consequences.

Korine sees the ritual as a surreal, ambiguous experience, as these college students go out to engage in all manner of behavior they wouldn't do outside of this arena, then go home and act like none of it ever happened.  It's a film that says more through tone than through talk, so don't expect its meaning to be handed to you in a pat fashion.  While I personally think that Spring Breakers often feels like a rough draft than a fully-articulated feature film, Korine nevertheless captures something unique and substantial in a topic most would write off as too vaporous and fleeting to explore.  Like the experience of spring break itself, Spring Breakers feels like a hit-and-miss collection of prurient desire expressions, but the hazy-daze memory of it sticks in the back of your mind long after it ends.

Qwipster's rating

2014 Vince Leo