Coeds Break Bad In "Spring Breakers"

One does not simply watch “Spring Breakers.” No, it requires that you strap in and keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. It’s a fireworks show as seen through a kaleidoscope, all while teetering on the ledge of a twenty-story building – just to catch a glimpse. And considering its stockpile of extremely R-rated material, a height requirement wouldn’t be out of place. Just as radio has transformed hip-hop into hip-pop, writer-director Harmony Korine has coupled his avant-garde sensibilities with a kind of pop-art explosion. The picture is David Lynch by way of Andy Warhol – all with a healthy dose of Britney Spears. But beware. If you’re not sure if “Spring Breakers” is for you, it’s not for you.

The film sees two former Disney-approved pop stars – Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens – join Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine as a quartet of college-aged party girls (Faith, Candy, Brit, and Cotty, respectively). Faith, the outlier of the group, is a sweetly naïve churchgoer, in denial about the nature of her longtime friends. The aforementioned threesome of friends is a group of determined troublemakers, partaking in a variety of drugs within moments of the opening titles.

When the girls discover that they lack the funds for their long-awaited spring break trip, Candy, Brit, and Cotty decide to rob a local chicken joint. Armed with ski masks and squirt guns, the trio executes the heist to perfection, running off into a rain-streaked night with gobs of cash. The sequence is directed breathlessly, most of it captured by a single tracking shot from the inside of the getaway car. Upon learning of the robbery, Faith is disappointed, but not enough to prevent her from joining her friends on the trek to Florida.

The attention deficit disorder-style editing works especially well during the first act, as the pic jumps back and forth between scenes and bits of dialogue. Most of the early narrative beats are scored like an M.I.A. song, ripe with electronic beats and silly machine gun sound effects. It’s a bit on the nose, but the chosen soundscape does well in accentuating the exotic cinematography and the carefree, hedonistic bent of the story and its inhabitants.

Minimal screen time is spent on the journey to Florida and the girls are quickly in the Sunshine State, engaging in various debaucheries – drugs, alcohol, and different shades of lewd behavior. Each girl calls home, selling their loved ones on the kindness of fellow spring breakers and their newfound love of life. Even Faith is a victim of the spring break undertow, falling hook, line, and sinker for the illusion of a life of uncorrupted happiness. Soon, she pours her heart out to her friends – she wants to freeze time and live in the moment forever. Her naivety is met with snickers. But her friends’ façades of worldliness are soon to be tested.

Somehow, the picture both slows down and picks up with the appearance of James Franco’s character, Alien. Alien is a corn-rowed, silver-crowned, self-proclaimed gangster-slash-rapper. Upon bailing the girls out of jail, the character seems harmless enough, throwing his money around to show off to a quartet of attractive, bikini-clad girls. However, the appearance of an arsenal of drugs and guns suggests otherwise, and the girls are quickly thrown into a world far removed from their comfort zone.

While none of the female cast members impress (Gomez fares the best of the bunch), Franco is something of a revelation, reveling in Alien’s drawl, arrogance, and unrivaled sliminess. The film’s most showstopping sequence features Franco performing Britney Spears’ “Everytime” on a poolside grand piano, the kind of scene that has to be seen to be believed. It’s a surprising performance, but a welcome one, and I can’t wait to see Franco continue to expand his cinematic horizons.

Unfortunately, Korine is much more concerned with the audience’s senses than coherent storytelling, and the screenplay has a tendency to sway aimlessly, occasionally going for broke and stumbling along drunkenly. Some of the repetition of particular visual and audio cues is effective, but it begins to annoy at the halfway mark, and as certain characters fade from the story, the trick loses its effect.

The finale is patently unsatisfying, but it doesn’t betray the experimental nature of the project and enough of the preceding electricity carries over to the end credits (scored by Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”). I’m still not sure what to take away from the film – and I’m not sure the film cares what I or anyone else takes away from it – but for fathers of daughters, it’ll seem like their worst nightmare.

For moviegoers looking for sensory overload, this will play particularly well, but for those looking for action or comedy, they won’t find much of it here. “Spring Breakers” is closer to art house fare than multiplex fodder, so I suspect mainstream audiences will be confounded, if not entirely put off. As a dark, meditative (occasionally bordering on ponderous) film with splashes of neon and waves of bass-thumping electronica, “Spring Breakers” is built for a very specific audience. But if you enjoy being challenged and crave cinematic experiences you haven’t had before, this is a film worth seeking out. It has “cult favorite” written all over it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: March 15, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: A24, Annapurna Pictures
Director: Harmony Korine
Screenwriter: Harmony Korine
Starring: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use, and violence throughout)