There isn’t a cloud in the sky as college kids gyrate in slow motion on a sun-kissed Florida beach. Dubstep music blasts in the background, beer flows like a mountain spring, and nudity abounds. The opening sequence of Spring Breakers is replayed multiple times as the film progresses, but each time it’s intercut, it becomes clearer that this stylized hedonism is nothing more than an idealized version of an escape from a mundane lifestyle. Spring Breakers will make headlines for casting former Disney starlets in bikinis and arming them with guns, but underneath the controversy lies one of the most interesting films of the year.
The movie follows four female college students from the South who are bored with waking up every day only to see and do the exact same thing. These girls don’t have much going on in the way of personalities except for Faith (Selena Gomez), whose on-the-nose name means – you guessed it – that she’s the only Christian of the group. But with spring break coming up and visions of non-stop partying in the group’s eyes, Faith’s faith falls to the wayside in favor of more basic pleasures. The foursome pools their money together for a spring break trip to St. Petersberg, Florida, come up short, and Faith’s three friends decide to rob a restaurant to make up the extra cash. The robbery unfolds in a single shot from inside the getaway car as it circles the parking lot, and it’s only later that Faith discovers her friends actually enjoyed the act to a disturbing degree.
Once they arrive at their destination, the movie turns into an extended episode of one of those Spring Break specials that used to air on MTV, only with more nudity and drug use. It’s not quite the idealized take from the movie’s opening, but by having the characters repeat, “Spring break. Spring break, ya’ll. Spring break forever,” in breathy voiceovers six or seven times, it’s clear that popsicle-sucking version is what these characters are striving to attain. There’s a spirituality assigned to these proceedings, and though it might seem ridiculous to deify glistening, sun-soaked bodies and the notion of living in the moment, that’s Korine’s exact point: the film holds a mirror to the YOLO generation and shows one possible outcome of how things could turn out for them. The story picks up when the girls are arrested at a huge hotel party on the beach and are quickly bailed out by Alien, a tattooed, cornrow-wearing, drug-slinging white rapper played by James Franco.
Franco’s performance is already legendary, partly because of his wild appearance, partly because of his commitment to the role, and partly because we’ve never seen him do anything like this before. He’s a self-professed gangster with a heart of gold who loves showing off his material possessions (“Look at my shit!” has already become the film’s most oft-quoted line). He has shorts in every color and a bedroom that could double as an armory, full of automatic weapons and knives hanging on the wall, layers of cash stacked on the bed, and Scarface playing on repeat forever. On the surface, he’s a comedic caricature of a gangster, but while he can be menacing one minute (the palpable threat of possible rape hangs in the air for a while), he also has a different, more complicated side. He plays Britney Spears ballads on the piano while the sun sets behind him in the background. In a tense reversal of power dynamics, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson’s characters force him to perform oral sex on the barrel of a gun, leading him to declare them his “soul mates.” For Franco, this performance is the logical conclusion of the string of strange arthouse projects he’s been involved with recently, and working with Korine has brought out the absolute best in him.
Though the booze, drugs, and music flow freely throughout, Spring Breakers is not a traditional party movie. It’s more of an exploration of lifestyle choices. But this isn’t like The Hangover, or Project X, or any other kind of movie that celebrates debauchery in a traditional way. Korine gives his film an ethereal quality that increases as the story progresses, with interesting non-linear editing choices that favor building a mood over directly feeding audiences the narrative. Some may question these decisions or suggest they’re stylistic for style’s sake, but it’s not at all difficult to comprehend the plot (which basically turns into a gangster battle between Franco and Gucci Mane, playing a rival dealer), and the editing – especially in the last act – truly gives the film a beautiful, experiential feel.
Many of the movie’s best moments are so bizarre I’d rather not ruin them for you here, especially considering how – despite their inherent weirdness – they actually feel strangely at home in Korine’s world. This is a stylized cinematic landscape designed in part to critique the attitude of millennials: consequences are mostly an illusion, obscured through hot pink ski masks and highlighted with neon-colored bathing suits. But having grown up in Florida, I noticed that Korine simultaneously manages to portray some aspects of the state with a realism rarely seen on film: rappers with tattoos of area codes on their bodies, hats, and shirts; the brown grass; the life outside of the stereotypical images you see in tourism commercials. He captures the sense that youthful sense that nothing is happening, so the characters’ desire to make something – anything – happen is justified in their eyes. For a look at the real Florida contrasted with unrealistic expectations, throw on a double feature of Spring Breakers and Soderbergh’s Magic Mike.
Spring Breakers is a condemnation of everything the film hypes in its own marketing campaign, but ironically it’s that very promise of babes, boobs, and bullets that will get people to come see the movie in the first place. Fans of Korine’s previous works (the controversial Kids (which he wrote), Trash Humpers, and Gummo) might be disappointed in the writer/director’s attempt to go mainstream, but though it may appear that way on the surface, Spring Breakers is often anything but traditional. It’s a crime story full of idiosyncrasies and broken reflections, which has already been led by the enigmatic Franco into cult classic status. Until next time…