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4 reviews, 7 user ratings

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Spring Breakers
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by Brett Gallman

"An invigorating and incisive critique of gutter trash."
5 stars

Spring Break is a uniquely American form of debauchery in its reverence for sheer emptiness and pure abandon; as a holiday, it commemorates nothing, nor does it symbolize anything beyond itself. With “Spring Breakers,” Harmony Korine confronts that emptiness, turns it inside out, and crafts it into a symbol of modern decadence. Like its participants, Korine inflates Spring Break to mythic levels before puncturing it and leaving its collapsed husk to stand as the rotting corpse of 21st century culture.

A quartet of girls—each of them terrible human beings (or at least teetering dangerously close to being so)—are stuck in the doldrums of spring semester. Unaware and unappreciative of the opportunities afforded them by education, they either skip class altogether (we’re introduced to Rachel Korine’s Cotty as she’s face-down on the couch, presumably after a night of partying) or don’t bother to pay attention during lectures.

As the face of Emmett Till lingers on during a presentation in the background, Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) draw penises and fantasize about Spring Break. Meanwhile, the chaste Faith (Selena Gomez) half-heartedly participates in a Bible club meeting, the intonations of the power of Jesus falling on mostly deaf ears as she also looks forward to the upcoming holiday, albeit with more trepidation.

These are Korine’s subjects that he ruthlessly pins to the board for examination. Whereas many films of this ilk would present them as impish, misguided youth, “Spring Breakers” pulls no punches and insists on their vapidity and sense of entitlement. When it looks like a lack of funds will deny them their trip, they knock over a chicken shack, a ludicrous act that highlights their narrow-minded commitment to an absurd ideal perpetrated by a vapid culture. This is a pilgrimage demanded not by holy texts but by MTV.

Korine gets all of this, and “Spring Breakers” operates in such a detached manner that it captures both the spiritual nature of the quest and its banality. The art house and the grindhouse frequently collide as Korine paints an artful but thoroughly unflattering portrait of St. Petersburg, a hedonistic Mecca to its pilgrims, and a debauched, neon hellscape to those who know better. Gomez’s wistful monologues capture a sense of idiotic awe that’s undercut by the relentless montages of an unwashed throng engaged in an orgy soaked by beer, cocaine, and puke. If Terrence Malick and Oliver Stone were to mash-up “Miami Vice,” “Girls Gone Wild,” “MTV’s Spring Break,” “Grand Theft Auto,” and “Where the Boys Are,” it might look a lot like “Spring Breakers,” a film that engages its bad behavior but does not celebrate it—this is perhaps what “Project X” would have been if it had a conscience.

Most films out of this mold do side with youth—boys will be boys, girls will be girls, and what happens at Spring Break will forever remain at Spring Break. Korine subverts and toys with this notion by suggesting that there are consequences—or that there at least should be. When the girls attend a party that attracts the attention of the police, they’re busted and spend a night in jail. There’s a twinge of regret for Faith, at least; for the others, they only seem to regret that their faux paradise has been lost. Enter their savior, Alien (James Franco), a white boy rapper with dreds and gold-plated teeth. Rather than repulse, this man-child enraptures most of the girls with his shitty, blinged-out 90s Z-28 Camaro and a mantra that intones “Spring Break forever.”

Alien is an easy target for mockery, but Franco’s performance brilliantly sidesteps a knowing parody; instead, he allows the role to consume him and performs in earnest. His Alien comes across as someone who truly believes he’s achieved the pinnacle of existence; as he catalogs his possessions (“look my sheeyit!” he exclaims), which becomes a litany of inanity: shirts and shorts in every color, Calvin Klein cologne, nunchucks, guns, and a television (that plays “Scarface” on a loop). The girls lap it up of course; after all, this is success on 21st century MTV airwaves.

The girls’ cavorting with Alien is subtly ghastly and appalling, but Franco is also legitimately endearing and complex in the role. Alien is an ultimate case of arrested development, a guy who seemed to learn all he needed to know from a season of MTV Cribs and refused to evolve beyond that. As a result, his worldview is twisted but still defined by his own sort of code. Whatever affection he has for the girls might be depraved, but it seems genuine; he calls it love, and it may as well be, as Korine exposes just how warped romance has become for both sexes. For someone raised during the past two decades, sex, danger, and a weird sense of loyalty all mesh into an amorist ideal.

Franco’s complex, layered performance is symptomatic of the film’s ability to straddle the line between pathos and satire, and Korine expertly keeps his toes on the side of the latter. While the film is gorgeously shot and oozes style, it’s only in the service of capturing pure ugliness. The film’s opening sequence is a prelude to its themes, as a horde of topless spring breakers party with reckless abandon; between the Skrillex anthem and the alluring slow motion photography, it almost seems celebratory. However, as Korine allows it to drone to the point of excess, it quickly becomes an unseemly mass of pure abandon. These are Eliot’s Hollow Men reimagined as 21st century buffoons who gyrate and piss in the streets.

Staying slightly outside and above it all is key to the film’s effectiveness, as “Spring Breakers” isn’t the dream the girls would have you believe it is but instead a nightmare. Korine’s elliptical style plays like a hazy, delirious fever dream, with every repetition and flash-forward resulting in an inescapable sort of feedback loop. The brooding, ominous vibe often feels like being doused with cold water, only it can’t jolt you from this lucid night terror--only serves to drive you deeper into it. Once the film has thoroughly spiraled into banal acts of violence and empty sex, “Spring Break forever” starts to seem more like a threat rather than an inspiring battle cry. St. Petersburg and Spring Break aren’t just another world anymore—they’re another plane of existence where subtext has become text, where the id has become unchained.

Much of the film’s subversion rests in Korine’s casting of teen starlets as the spring breakers. Disney alumni Hudgens and Gomez’s presences are particularly startling, as these aren’t just girls gone wild—they’re “good” girls gone wild, corrupted by the allure of Spring Break. These meta-implications are difficult to shake, as Korine deconstructs their personas and images to reveal what young girls are really like, and it’s not pretty. In fact, Hudgens and Benson form a sociopathic outlaw duo with no remorse; they’re actually more dangerous than Alien himself—he might fashion himself a real G, but these two are downright demonic and soulless.

Rachel Korine’s Cotty only fares slightly better as the group’s reckless wild child who finds herself in the center of the film’s more uncomfortable scenes. Surrounded by frat boys and beer bongs, she writhes and teases an audience that's a step away from raping her (this stuff seems wholly unsavory--and potent--in light of the recent Steubenville trial). Korine smartly places Gomez as the group’s outsider and the closest thing to a voice of reason; there’s still a lot of her left to corrupt, and she’s not quite willing to completely lose herself. When Alien bails them out of jail, she quickly discerns that their guardian angel is actually a devil that’s about to send them straight to hell.

The well-pitched ensemble makes for a compelling swath of modern Americana; each is rather clueless in his or her own way, but it’s a gleeful sort of cluelessness. Before embarking on their robbery, Brit and Candy convince themselves to pretend that it’s just a movie or a video game in a willful attempt to desensitize and dissociate from the act. Likewise, Korine doesn’t revel in their violence but remains detached; initially, the robbery is only glimpsed from Cotty’s car as she circles in the getaway car. A later flashback takes us into the hateful maelstrom and assaults us with the savagery; unlike the films from which these two took inspiration (one of which was no doubt “Scarface” itself), there’s nothing cool or inviting about this violence.

“Spring Breakers” is a subversive inversion precisely because it does seem briefly inviting: its aesthetic experience is hypnotic, dazzling, electrifying, and completely sublime. However, it only remains cool because it refuses to identify with and celebrate its subjects; this isn’t a homage to Spring Break but a thorough pile-driving of its ideals and sensibilities. It presents the interesting notion that the turn of the century wasn’t quite the end of history, but it may have been the end of culture: everything about “Spring Breakers” seems hopelessly millennial: the gang sees Britney Spears as a sort of guru, and Alien’s bedroom recitation is straight out of MTV Cribs.

The film is sure to spawn several catch-phrases, but Alien’s “look at this shit” may unlock “Spring Breakers.” After all, Korine’s mantra might as well be “look at this shit and despair.” This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but with the flushing of the toilet as the remnants of culture circle the drain, awash in alcohol and vomit.

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originally posted: 03/25/13 10:05:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/10/14 Butt Looses a star for too much unecessary T&A. Scarface for the new millenium. 4 stars
9/28/13 Derek Diercksmeier An absolute masterpiece! 5 stars
8/14/13 Flipsider I'm not sure if I liked it, but it was mesmerizing. 4 stars
7/31/13 Langano Enjoyed the ride. 4 stars
7/26/13 mr.mike It was dreadful. 2 stars
3/28/13 Jeff Wilder Effectively uses Spring Break as a metaphor for a society rotting from inside. 4 stars
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  15-Mar-2013 (R)
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