Spring Breakers, Defined
The film opens to a montage of butts, boobs, beer funnels, and blissfully dreamy yet hard-edged debauchery. Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” overlays the revelry. The song swells like a techno lullaby, declaring, with a sweetness, “You don’t need to hide my friend/For I am just like you,” and then crashes cathartically onto a scratchily-screamed, urgently-felt “Yes, Oh my god!” One can’t really make out the lyrics—heard only is the desperate yet strangely joyous refrain.
Spring Breakers’ director, Harmony Korine, has been described by many as unflaggingly—even indulgently bizarre. This film has been hyped as something potentially alienating—a strange stab at a work of art that will prove at best esoteric, at worst incoherent and aimlessly offensive.
However, from the opening sequence on, Korine’s latest film belies this prediction—challenging viewers without holding them at arm’s length or refusing them entry. This is not a self-indulgent piece of cinema that works to trick the audience into a false sense of its artistic merit through impressively madcap yet hollow antics.
Neither is the film pretentious—burying its worth and meaning within labyrinthine webs whose tangles may only be unbraided and decoded by the most sophisticated, cinematically-literate of viewers.
Yes, like most truly, rewardingly lovely movies and works of art, Spring Breakers inspires discussion, dissection, analysis. The film is capacious. Its structure is marked by folds and pockets that the audience may inhabit. One begins unfolding such creases only to become happily weary—noticing, as I did, that there is more, more, more—a proliferation of analytical entry points, of significance, of sentiment.
The film’s continual refrain, ostensibly insipid but also provocative and multifariously interesting, is “spring break forever.” Candy, Faith, Cotty, and Brit are best friends who begin the movie vying for their chance at that storied, frenetic Florida escape. They’ve been saving up all year but have not accumulated nearly enough cash. The ennui of their drizzly, nondescript college campus is palpable. For them, spring break is not just a vacation, a typical March pilgrimage—a given. No, you don’t understand. They need to go.
All of them, especially the more angelic, moralistic Faith (played convincingly by the Disney Starlett Selena Gomez), simply must get out. They are tired of seeing the same things—the same sad street lights. And it is a depressing little college town, and one does get the impression that these girls haven’t seen themselves in other contexts, in other places. They have little mobility. They need it so much (you don’t—can’t understand) that they rob a local dive—pretending ferocity with hammers, gratuitous bravado, and theatrical pseudo violence. Nicki Minaj’s “Moment 4 Life” plays from their getaway car.
The concept of spring break is transcendent in Korine’s film. It captures some of the organic, humanistic spirituality of a Terrence Malick movie. Only Korine’s work is set to Skrillex, Wakka Flokka Flame, and all things neon. You might predict that these girls’ expectations would be a bit disappointed when they finally arrive to the vomiting, natty-light-imbibing, sun-streaked world of St. Petersburg, Florida. Or else you may assume that they’d simply have a good time reveling in such filthy, torrid jumbles of body parts, of bathing suits on and off. But as Faith says on the phone to her grandmother, it’s more than fun. It is a spiritual experience. They’re finding themselves—truly, she says. It’s so beautiful and perfect; it seems like it should—must, actually—continue forever.
Faith, bathing in the motel pool at night with Brit and Candy, is stunned—almost re-baptized—by the beauty, by the feelings of freedom, of love and of friendship. (Another refrain, played throughout the movie, is her description of how sweet everyone is, how everyone is just like them, how they are making friends.)
Korine lingers on and mashes together shots of body parts—capturing the flagrant objectification of oneself and of others that occurs on typically trashy spring breaks. Girls are their parts. Only bikinis are worn; boobs, butts, and thighs are shown more often than faces.
There are scenes of partying that appear sad and dehumanizing, dirty and impure. And it seems as if nothing good or connective could emerge out of that—could occur alongside of and as a part of the dirtiness, the fragment. And yet it does. The girls, especially Faith, feel connected to the other revelers and derive a sense of spirituality—of transcendence, of beautiful camaraderie—from these moments of ostensible depravity. The concepts of purity and impurity are intensely problematic, simplifying, and ultimately implausible, and so Korine complicates them. He portrays transcendent experiences and communion that are no less beautiful though they are un-sanitized, debauched, and unhallowed.
We, as a society, like to separate out ideas of love, sensitivity, and genuine human connection from concepts of impurity, of crassness, and of iniquity. We wash and compartmentalize the good—removing what appears messy. This film lets everything exist together—the only way it truly can.
James Franco’s character, Alien, is magnificent and stunningly rendered by the actor, who turns in one of his best, most invested and uninhibited performances to date. Franco ensures that Alien’s role in the film doesn’t become a complete, ridiculous farce—purely oddball and comic. Instead, he plays the character with gravity—even during his more hilarious moments. Alien is a brilliantly superficial yet sensitive hustler who takes the girls under his wing, recognizing a certain something in them. (What this something is, exactly, is a central question of the film. It is certainly not purely hardness or crass uncaring.)
Vanessa Hudgens is, okay I’ll just say it, surprisingly impressive in her role as Candy. The performance is genuine and unafraid. She brings to life a shockingly distinct character and way of interacting with the world. Rounding out the group of friends, Rachel Benson and Ashley Korine, as Brit and Cotty, also turn in thoroughly convincing performances.
There are departures that occur throughout the film—first Faith, cowed by the strange scariness of Alien, and then Cotty, leave for home. Brit and Candy, however, refuse to acknowledge an end to spring break and continue in Florida with Alien.
The idea of excess is a major theme throughout the film, and Franco’s character, with his grillz, decadent house, money, and lifestyle of hustling, embodies this concept. He repeats “This is the American dream,” referring to himself and to the splendid gratuity of spring break. He plays Scarface, the classic film about chasing the American dream, on repeat. That dream, it seems, is ever-escalating excess, constant growth, and a refusal to ever stop or opt out. America works toward a hollow, wonderfully dreamy too-muchness.
Excess, though, cannot be sustained. By definition both excess and break time cannot exist without forcing eventual recourse back to reality. These concepts, in themselves, can only maintain their definitions if they are positioned against their opposites. Yet, in so many ways, excess defines how we live our lives and what we strive for. It makes sense that we are so beguiled by this idea; for it is, in a way, a beautiful, romantic, and mythic concept. Excess is fascinating, even moving.
Korine’s Florida world is a dreamland because excess cannot define our reality. Only it does. Gratuity and a constant striving for more are driving forces of society. This contradiction is acutely manifested and exaggerated in Spring Breakers. And so we get this strange, bizarre and untenable-seeming place.
This excess is not purely a symptom of a sick society—a gaudy emblem of misdirected values and indefatigable desire. Instead, Korine illustrates the rapturous qualities—the beauty, the voltage—that can emerge from this intensely-hyper American dream.
Two who have visited this land of gratuity depart, acknowledging that you cannot both exist and exceed—or, somewhat equivalently, that you cannot live in spring break unendingly. But two remain, challenging the boundaries of the gratuitous and the forever. They want to derive their sustainable realities from the unsustainable concepts and trappings of excess and overflow.
The visuals and the techno-pop mishmash of sickly-sweet, jarringly-overwhelming music capture the gratuity of the film. The repetitive dialogue and voice overs lend a rhythmic, dream-like feel.
Korine’s film is rich. It is not a satire because it is too invested in its material, seeming to realize that by aiming too much to comment upon or critique something you also necessarily set yourself apart from it. Thus, there is no move toward judgment and, consequently, nothing is lost or simplified.