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Spring Breakers

March 23, 2013
Spring Breakers

When I was a teenager, Kids came out, and it set off such a shockwave that even without seeing it — and it would have been hard to see it when it came out, given that it peaked in 187 theaters — I knew that it was something unusual. The screenwriter, Harmony Korine, has taken to directing his own screenplays since then, and has steadily grown in reputation. But it’s just now, with Spring Breakers that he seems able to have such an impact on the popular culture as he did back at the start of his career.

The catch is, a lot of the impact comes from the casting; Korine has assembled some of the most popular young women who have made names for themselves children’s and family entertainment over the last ten years and placed them in a story that is friendly to neither children nor families. But is there anything to the film beyond Disney pop stars breaking bad? Thankfully — and almost surprisingly — there is.

The four girls we follow have known each other from childhood all the way to the same midwest college, and they’re bored to death of it. Wild girls Candy (Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical) and Brit (Ashley Benson of Pretty Little Liars) mostly, and their friend Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony’s wife), but even the actively religious Faith (Selena Gomez of Wizards of Waverly Place) wants to get out of the same place she’s spent her entire life. But after saving all year they’ve only got a few hundred dollars — not even enough for all of them to split a motel room for one night of Spring Break in St. Petersburg.

Candy, Brit, and Cotty decide to do what must be done, holding up a restaurant to fund their trip. Faith doesn’t participate in the robbery, but she goes along to Florida all the same, knowing full well where the money came from. But as pleasant as the gulf waters look, they’re full of sharks just waiting to feed. The girls’ escape begets more escapism; the four get arrested and bailed out by a sleazy wannabe drug lord who goes by “Alien” (James Franco), and who draws them into his ongoing beef with rival gangster Archie (Gucci Mane).

Does Korine have something to say here? It’s hard to tell. Kids was, for all its bluster, more pearl-clutching hype with a gritty swagger than anything else, and it’s not certain there’s much more to Spring Breakers. It seems to play at times as a cautionary tale in the vein of Requiem for a Dream, and at other times as a rude awakening to Gen-X parents that their princesses are not little girls anymore. There are hints towards the dangerous power of young female sexuality, especially when women start to embrace more traditionally masculine expressions. There is definitely an indictment of the broish hedonism of college Spring Break culture with its reduction of thousands of people to an undulating mass of body parts drowning in alcohol, and a straight line is drawn from that culture to Alien’s aggressive and violent materialism. On the whole, it’s a bit of a mess that may require multiple passes to sift out anything of value.

Setting the content aside, though, Spring Breakers is an extraordinary work of art, making full use of cinema as a medium unlike all others. Large stretches of the film depart completely from any standard sense of narrative, replacing it with a collage of flashforwards, flashbacks, stock footage, and voiceover that suggests the emotional content of a scene more than any literal sense of what happened. Except I hesitate to use the word “scene”, since there’s no traditional scene at all for these techniques to modulate.

I don’t want to say that this approach is unique or entirely new, but the closest work that comes to mind is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, with its similarly impressionistic treatment of Jack’s childhood, and even that follows a more or less linear stream of consciousness. Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void — which shares Spring Breakers‘ cinematographer Benoît Debie — is another close cousin.

Other scenes hew closer to a traditional montage in structure while indulging in more uncommon visual styles. The party preceding the girls’ arrest oozes and shifts in patches across the screen to match its dubstep soundtrack, courtesy of Skrillex. At the same time, the image takes on an unusual quality I can only describe as pointillist.

Whether or not Korine’s experiments work, or whether it contains any coherent nuggets of message buried in all its fine, white sand, I can’t really answer. Either way, it’s an impressive aesthetic achievement on Korine’s part, and one that should be seen by anyone who wants to see what cinema can do unlike anything else.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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