“A certain degree of debauchery was even seen as manly, rakish, the bold grasping of forbidden pleasure… In school, in short, they had still no knowledge of life, no sense of all the gradations from coarseness and lechery to sickness and absurdity that fill the adult with revulsion when he hears of such things.” —The Confusions of Young Törless
“This wasn’t just about spring break; it was about seeing something different.” —Spring Breakers
Like a Katy Perry song come to life, the opening minutes of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers are an ode to 21st century hedonism. We see a montage of beer flowing, asses shaking, and bikini tops vanishing, all set against the sunshine and splendor of a Florida beach. Then we’re thrust back to some nameless university in some dreary college town, where a quartet of young girls is trapped away from all this decadence.
Brit, Candy, Cotty, and Faith (Ashley Benson/Vanessa Hudgens/Rachel Korine/Selena Gomez) are introduced as more or less typical college girls: They pass each other notes in class, get bored by authority figures, and dance to bad rap songs in the dorm hallways. Their biggest problem is that they don’t have enough money to go on spring break, which they see as their only escape from the surrounding monotony.
But Korine inserts a few touches that immediately differentiate the foursome from typical Hollywood clichés: The notes they pass are surprisingly vulgar, and Hudgens’ character won’t stop miming gunshots with her hands (not in a friendly way either). At one point, Benson’s Brit loads a squirt gun with liquor and shoots it into her mouth.
So it doesn’t come as a total shock when they decide to make up for their fiscal shortfall by robbing a restaurant. The most alarming thing about their decision is the speed with which they arrive at it: There is no moral conflict or hesitancy or even uncertainty about how to commit a robbery. “Just act like it’s a video game,” Candy says.
Indeed, one of the film’s guiding ideas is the ease with which anyone—even four white college girls—can slip into terrifying criminal behavior simply by aping popular culture. This is not a particularly fresh or insightful point, but the way Korine brings it to life is vivid. When we first see the robbery, for example, the camera trails the getaway car as we see Brit and Candy sticking up the store and its customers through the windows. Shot from a distance and hermetically sealed off with no sound, the scene looks like a comic book or a video game. Only later, when we cut back to the scene from Brit and Candy’s point of view, do we remember that this was not a harmless prank or victimless crime.
The film is incredibly overt in the way it juxtaposes typical scenes of college bacchanalia with far more dangerous behavior, but this is part of the film’s success. Once the girls get down to the beach, Korine beats us over the head with images of them not just enjoying their freedom, but completely enthralled by it. It is the rite of passage that spring break is often presented as. In particular, Faith—the “religious one”* who is seen at church early in the film—sees the experience as profoundly life-changing. She’s so earnest about finally feeling free to be her true self that her friends laugh at her behind her back.
*See what I mean? Overt.
Of course, the natural extension of this liberating experience is liberation from social inhibitions and morality. Korine films the party scenes like they are a Hobbesian state of nature, with unchecked freedom and no authority. The threat of sexual assault is constant and unavoidable throughout these scenes—characters are constantly telling each other to “get on your knees”—even though the girls themselves are never afraid. The camera fixes on mouths and all the things people put in them: beer, bongs, pipes, guns, other peoples’ body parts, etc. The revelers seem animalistic in a way that makes their debauchery come of as rote and depressing, even as the characters act like they’ve never been happier.
At the beach, the girls meet Alien (James Franco), who is the embodiment of spring break run amok—he wears cornrows and a grill, he’s a drug dealer who raps at beach parties in his free time, and he fills his bedroom with cash and guns. When he bails the girls out of jail, he becomes their guide through the beach community’s seedy underbelly. The girls are drawn to him, not just out of curiosity but out of the same attraction to all forbidden pleasure that drives spring break behavior. Once again, harmless fun devolves into crime and immorality.
Only Faith seems really troubled by Alien. As the character most earnestly affected by the newfound freedom of spring break, she doesn’t like to see its purity ruined by this wannabe Lil Wayne. Selena Gomez is asked to carry almost all the film’s emotional weight as Faith, and she handles it beautifully. The scenes with her and Franco really shine, and the film loses something when her character goes away.
Indeed, as the film drags on, it gets a bit repetitive. Only 94 minutes, Spring Breakers still feels a little padded, especially a subplot involve Alien’s rival gang leader. The dialogue throughout can be heavy-handed and on the nose: At one point Alien screams, “I’m the American dream!” Sometimes this lack of subtlety works for laughs, but it also gets tiresome. Korine works better with images and sounds than he does with dialogue, particularly in a montage set to Britney Spears’ “Everytime” that is worth the price of admission.
The film can be a disorienting onslaught of images and sounds. It doesn’t proceed linearly, often looping back through scenes over and over again from different perspectives. Thus things are constantly being reevaluated as they are seen in new contexts. Just when it seems Alien has turned the girls into his own personal harem, for example, we flash back to an earlier sex scene that totally reframes the power dynamic of their relationship.
There will be people who see this film as an act of female-empowerment; there will be people who see it as an indictment of youth culture; there will be people who see it as a glorification of sex and violence; and there will be people who see it as manipulative exercise in exploiting the shock value of seeing the stars of High School Musical and Wizards of Waverly Place in a jail cell. At various times it is all these things. Spring Breakers never really settles on a tone, and despite the overtness of its message, it’s not entirely clear what its point is. Are we meant to laugh? Be shocked? Outraged? Excited?
But this confusion isn’t really a bad thing. A film like this could be too easily reduced to a clichéd morality play if it weren’t a little bit of everything. In the end, it succeeds in simply dramatizing the logical conclusions of turning debauchery into an integral part of a college education.