For those not familiar, Harmony Korine is a writer-director and provocateur whose transgressive films like Gummo, Mister Lonely and Trash Humpers have earned him a reputation as the sort of counter-cultural artist you either admire or despise. He returns with Spring Breakers, casting Selena Gomez (Wizards of Wizardly Place), Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical), Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars) and his wife Rachel Korine as a pack of gallivanting bikini-clad college gals.
The story revolves around Faith (Gomez) and her best friends since grade school: Brit (Benson), Candy (Hudgens) and Cotty (Mrs. Korine). When a lack of proper funds threatens to derail their spring break plans, Faith and her companions decide that breaking the law to finance their quest is acceptable (even necessary). Their subsequent pursuit of booze, drugs and general mayhem lands them in hot water – which includes Al (a.k.a. Alien, played by James Franco), a grown white man living a “black gangsta” lifestyle in every sense of the term.
Spring Breakers is the cinematic equivalent of a hyperactive pop song, blasting its way across the screen. Its bare-bones narrative elements and emotional beats progress in a straightforward fashion, but are then elevated through poetic visual and aural devices – producing an exhilarating and hypnotic sensory experience, which transitions from moment to moment with dream-like logic and organization. By the end, you may either feel as energized as though you’ve stepped off a roller coaster, or unpleasantly confused about what on Earth you just sat through.
The fever dream structure helps to transform Spring Breakers from what could have been an obnoxious celebration of unbridled hedonism, with Korine serving as the ringmaster who parades his sociopathic characters around like freaks (so that audiences can hurl insults at them). Instead, we have a film that could better be described as an earnest and compassionate work – one which is constructed with a critical eye, but not so focused on creating satire as you might expect (for better or for worse).
Indeed, the very first sequence in the film comes off as garish and abrasive, but the way in which Korine continually revisits the (practically comical) sexually-charged footage over the course of Spring Breaker‘s running time suggests there is a method to his apparent madness (and it does not include titillating the viewers, so don’t head in expecting something which amounts to quasi-pornography or a flesh-show). Other editing choices made throughout support that claim, revealing a technique which, by and large, succeeds at giving the onscreen action greater significance.
Similarly, the film’s shallow approach to characterization – in combination with what often feel like play-by-ear conversations and improvised scenarios that make up the film – either intentionally or accidentally provide a biting commentary about the true nature of the world (and its inhabitants) that Korine has envisioned. While it’s neither a flawless approach nor easily-accessible, it’s engaging – assuming that you can get past the (admittedly) off-putting surface appearance, anyway.
Korine’s creation benefits from him collaborating with skilled technical artists, who provide Spring Breakers with a subtext about such problems as contemporary self-indulgent behavior and gender inequalities. As mentioned before, much of that credit goes to the Oscar-nominated editor Douglas Crise (Babel, Kill the Irishman), who makes a cinematic collage from the hodgepodge of footage made available to him (which varies in quality from grainy and erratic to polished and clean).
Similarly, director of photography Benoît Debie (The Runaways, Get the Gringo) is constantly moving the camera’s eye towards women’s bodies, but relies on unflattering angles and lighting in a way that makes that objectification feel self-critical (for example: when the main characters are lounging about a dorm hallway in their two-pieces, they look more like overgrown babies than sensual creatures). Meanwhile, an excellent electro-beat soundtrack from Skrillex and Cliff Martinez (Drive) transitions smoothly between notes of exhilaration, loneliness and affection in just the right amounts.
Franco vanishes into his bizarre turn as Alien, creating an outsider who evolves from pathetic to charming, twisted and even sympathetic over the span of a single scene (in other words: he’s more in his wheelhouse playing an oddball like Al, as opposed to the normal people roles from his recent blockbuster outings like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Oz the Great and Powerful). You get the impression he’s in on the joke, so to speak, but still chooses to deliver a sincere performance.
The female leads, on the other hand, never rise above just feeling like metaphors instead of fully-realized (if vapid) individuals; as a result, their personalities tend to be one-note or far too on the nose (Faith, for example, is a well-meaning Christian – I’m not kidding). However, each actress commits to bringing their own shallow caricature to life, which allows them to enjoy moments of humanity and instances of spiritual growth (even amid the chaos and frenzy of Korine’s storytelling).
Moviegoers who found themselves repelled (or maybe just perplexed) by Korine’s previous work might experience a change of heart with Spring Breakers. The filmmaker’s approach is non-condescending, which allows everything onscreen to seem both ironic, and yet somehow, not at all ironic. As a whole, this makes for an audacious, yet enthralling and even transcendent, portrait of maturity sprouting from a place of corruption and avarice.
It’s, for sure though, a divisive work of art.
Feel free to watch the Spring Breakers trailer below, but keep in mind: it might not be the most accurate litmus test for gauging your own reaction (and determining where you are going to fall on the love/hate scale):
Spring Breakers is 94 minutes long and Rated R for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout. Now playing in limited release.