Harmony Korine certainly knows how to roil up a controversy. The advertising material for Spring Breakers declares it "the most talked about movie of the year", and while that's an unverifiable claim, it's certainly true that a lot of film critics, pundits and regular folks were chewing over what the film meant. Is it a tale of postmodern female empowerment? Is it cheap exploitation of young Disney stars in bikinis? An examination of the male gaze? Is it racist? Good? Awful? Whatever it is, it got people talking.
The film follows the exploits of four college friends: Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine). They are bored with their dull and repetitive educational existence, one might even say suffering from ennui, and feel that a trip to beaches of Florida for spring break would alleviate their suffering and raise them to a higher plane of awareness. But they have no money, or not enough.
The solution? Candy, Brit and Cotty rob a diner, with squirt guns. Of course, they don't tell the innocent faith, until after the fact. And perhaps she's not so innocent, because though she doesn't approve (sort of) of armed robbery, she happily goes on the trip with the funds provided, so desperate is she to change something about her life.
What follows is an odd admixture of salacious and innocent. The girls drink, drive scooters around the city, hang around in parking lots singing, and party at the beach. Everything seems to be going well, until they attend a particularly rowdy affair at a motel, with hard drugs easily available. The police arrive, and the four young women are arrested, with no money for bail. But fear not, local rapper / drug dealer Alien (James Franco) pays the money for their release, and adopts the girls as his personal totems. This is when things get creepy.
Alien, along with his employees the ATL Twins (Sidney and Thurman Sewell), brings the girls into the seedy underbelly of St. Petersburg, where they mix with thugs, dealers, users and criminals. Faith wants none of this, and after much angst gets on the bus to return home. But the other three are excited by the danger, and wade deeper into the murky waters, at least until a confrontation with Alien's former friend, gangster Archie (Gucci Mane) leads to another crisis in the group.
If this plot summary seems logical and straightforward, don't be misled. The film is not presented in anything like a normal narrative format. It's more of an experiential, impressionistic take, with multiple flashbacks and short scenes that get the point across, but don't flow in sequential order. It feels like a fever dream or a long ago memory resurfacing. This disjointed visual style helps to underscore how disconnected the girls are: from their families, from the wider world, from reality.
They seem to drift along bouncing around from stimulus to stimulus, in a gauzy world of make believe. They don't seem to see any possible consequences of their actions, until those consequences forcefully present themselves. For Faith, all it takes is getting arrested, for Cotty it takes getting shot in the arm. For Brit and Candy, their commitment to the visceral thrill is total, and consequence doesn't seem to matter.
The four girls all give good performances, with perhaps Gomez delivering the best. Her sweet, conflicted Faith is a treat. The agonized pleading with her friends to leave with her after Alien springs them is probably the best acting in the film. And James Franco deserves special credit for his gonzo turn as the would be gangster. He's oily (both physically and otherwise), trashy, disturbing, menacing, exuberant and incredibly appealing, all at the same time. He's like a street preacher for drugs and sex, and provides much of the energy that drives the second half of the film.
Thematically, one could say that Korine is exploring the debauched life of the American teenager, and the disconnectedness mentioned earlier that they feel. Or it could be about the glamor of the criminal life. Or about how predators groom their young victims. Or about feminism and female empowerment. More likely, all of these things. The point is that Korine is more interested in asking questions than answering them. No overarching message is discernible. There's no poignant emotional development or neat summing up. That's not to say that there isn't a point, but that the point is the experience of seeing how things are, or could be, in a highly stylized presentation. Korine is happy to let the viewer draw their own conclusions about what it all means, which is evident by the widely divergent opinions about the film.
Nevertheless, there's nothing slapdash or thrown together about Spring Breakers. Everything we see has been consciously selected and deliberately planned out. So, the thematic ambiguity is clearly intentional. Sure, it can be seen as a reactionary condemnation of the sorts of behavior it displays, but it seems that Korine is more interested in exploring the seamier side of our culture, and in this he largely succeeds. Highly recommended.
Breaking it Down: Behind Spring Breakers
Commentary with Writer Director Harmony Korine
Harmony's Ear Candy