Spring Breakers (United States, 2013)

March 21, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Spring Breakers Poster

When one considers the phenomenon of "Spring Break," images of bikini-clad young women, bronzed guys, and inhibition-shedding parties fill the mind's eye. In general, Hollywood has used Spring Break as a jumping-off point for comedies - some romantic, some raunchy, and some a little of both - but most of those movies emphasize the "fun" in the situation. The equation of "drugs+booze+sex=happy ending" applies. Then along comes Harmony Korine with Spring Breakers and subverts an entire genre.

By design, Spring Breakers looks like it's going to be just another fun-in-the-sun outing. Korine starts out with beach shots that more often than not look like commercials for Girls Gone Wild, color-rich images of sunsets, and scenes of a 24/7 party lifestyle. It's the kind of advertising campaign that will get college students out of their dorms and onto buses and planes. But Korine isn't making a feather-light comedy. In fact, he isn't making a comedy at all. Nor is Spring Breakers and exploitation flick, despite the high T&A quotient. This is a serious "message movie." In fact, it's so serious that at times it stumbles under the weight of its own self-importance.

Distilled to its bitter essence, Spring Breakers is a condemnation of the shallowness of today's youth. It's not a denunciation of partying in general but of a lifestyle that becomes defined by partying. It shows that all the pretty shots and sexually-charged images can hide something decayed and ugly. Korine also manages to transform what might be considered a happy ending in another movie into a moment of sadness. In fact, it's not hard to see how this story in the hands of another director with a different agenda could, in fact, be just another raunchy Spring Break comedy.

One of the knocks against Korine over the years has been his predilection for pretentiousness and, although it's toned down in Spring Breakers, it remains in evidence. There are times when he can't get out of his own way. He has a tendency toward showing off visually, as if to prove that he's a serious artist. This is most evident it the way he varies the way scenes are presented - natural color, desaturated to nearly black-and-white, and so forth. It's more distracting than effective.

There's not much of a narrative to speak of. Four college girls - Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Korine's wife, Rachel) - head down to Florida for a few days of partying. They fall under the spell of a low-level rapper and drug-dealer, Alien (James Franco), and join up with him - except Faith, who breaks from the group and heads home. None of the characters are deeply drawn. We feel the most strongly for Faith because she's the most relatable of them: the good Christian girl experiencing her moment of rebellion and discovering it takes her too far outside her comfort zone. Everyone else pretty much goes with the flow no matter how dark and bumpy it becomes.

Korine's key stylistic element, and the one that works the most successfully, is a penchant for repetition. Many lines are spoken more than once and some are repeated four, five, or six times. To understand where Korine is coming from, combine this with dialogue in which Faith states that the reason everyone is bored and depressed is that they live every day seeing and experiencing the same things.

Faith has a soul, but the other three - Candy, Brit, and Cotty - are rotten inside. They're in it for the experience of the moment. They have no understanding of consequences. It's frightening. They commit a robbery because it seems like a good, quick way to get some cash. When they're playing around with loaded weapons, it doesn't matter whether one goes off. These aren't three good girls who have shed their inhibitions for a week of hedonism; this is something much, much darker. This is the territory where sociopathy meets normalcy, where the desensitization of conscience opens up terrifying possibilities. In another movie, these girls would be sex objects. In Spring Breakers, we're all too aware of what lurks under the pretty packaging.

Much of the publicity surrounding Spring Breakers has related to the participation of three former teenage stars: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson. (The fourth girl, Rachel Korine, has little experience outside of acting in a few indie films.) Like many who have developed under the "family entertainment" banner, they are seeking to broaden their horizons and be seen as serious performers. It's the Anne Hathaway approach: start out clean then make the break by trying something gritty.

Gomez, arguably the best actress in the group, stretches the least. She never takes her clothing off, doesn't swear, and departs before things get really out-of-control. She's completely believable as the good girl out of her depth. Hudgens and Benson swear like truckers, engage in all sorts of drinking and drug use, and have a peek-a-boo threeway with James Franco in a pool. Their performances are unsettling, which is precisely what's intended. Rachel Korine is right up there with them, the only difference being that her nudity is more blatant. Then there's Franco, who's giving one of the most off-the-wall portrayals of his career. I was a little reminded of Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe, although perhaps the fellatio imagery has something to do with it.

Spring Breakers isn't for the crowd looking to be titillated and entertained in a light, breezy manner. The titillation is a hook; the material itself is dark and uncompromising. This isn't mainstream fare, although it's probably the most straightforward material Korine has been involved in since Kids (which he wrote for director Larry Clark). The strengths more than counterbalance the weaknesses and help Spring Breakers to deliver a more disturbing and substantive experience than one might expect from an exploitation-tinged title.

Spring Breakers (United States, 2013)

Director: Harmony Korine
Cast: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine
Screenplay: Harmony Korine
Cinematography: Benoit Debie
Music: Cliff Martinez
U.S. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures
Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 2013-03-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1