Director: Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo, Trash Humpers, Mister Lonely)
Writer: Harmony Korine
Producers: Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Jordan Gertner, Chris Hanley, David Zander
Starring: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 94 min.
Jeremy Wilson from 411mania.com
The MPAA rating for Harmony Korine’s first feature, 1997’s Gummo, was “Rated R for pervasive depiction of anti-social behavior of juveniles, including violence, substance abuse, sexuality and language.” While some might blanche or seek to soften that kind of description, Korine wears it as a badge of honor and uses it as his mission statement in almost all of his films. The latest example of young adults behaving badly is also one of the year’s must-see movies – a first for Korine – Spring Breakers. The rating and description might be the same, but the execution and finished product feels very different and – thankfully – a more mature artistic statement from one of the true agent provocateurs in filmmaking.
Harmony Korine broke onto the scene with 1995’s Kids, a screenplay he wrote at the age of 18. That film was one of the most controversial of the 1990s, frankly depicting a day in the life of sexually active teenagers whose casual attitudes and use of sex and drugs during the HIV crisis in New York City was scandalous and taboo. That film (featuring the debuts of Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson) originally received an NC-17 before being released without a rating, but the film has remained a controversial landmark of that era ever since. Korine eventually moved behind the camera directing numerous independent films that were squarely outside the mainsteam such as Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, Mister Lonely and Trash Humpers, the latter of which was shot on VHS and followed a group of sociopathic elderly degenerates in rural Tennessee who literally humped trash containers (among other things). Korine has, to this point, been an acquired taste even among the most open-minded cinéastes, with many dismissing him as nothing but an empty poseur simply interested in provoking and shocking on the basest levels.
And some of that Korine is still in his latest feature Spring Breakers. In fact, the first 40 minutes or so of the film is a parade of debauchery, drinking, drugs and dizzying slow-mo closeups of breasts that will probably make many start to wonder if Korine is at it again, trying to be as in-your-face and loathsome to his audience as has happened in previous efforts. However, this film is different and proof of that arrives in the form of James Franco the Great and Powerful. Referring to himself as “Alien,” Franco’s arrival essentially restarts the picture, turning the naïveté of these girls and of what we’ve seen of the “dream” Spring Break on its head and showing what Korine believes to be the natural extension of that aggressive bacchanal mindset. What started as bored college girls who rob the local chicken shack to pay for their excursion to paradise, suddenly breaks free of what these pictures usually look like and goes down a darker, more serious path.
In the process, Spring Breakers tackles not just the conformist rituals of Spring Break, but also has things to say about gender roles, sexual myopia, race, gangster culture, capitalism and as Manohla Dargis writes “the pursuit of happiness taken to nihilistic extremes.” Never forcing a firm position on its audience, Korine’s film skitters about with its fractured editing, non-linear loops, repeated scenes and lines of dialogue, brushing up against many issues and themes, allowing viewers to put the pieces together as they will or see fit. Many who love it will find different things to admire; those who loathe it will have equally as many aspects to admonish. I find a sort of beauty in that and in it, but many will be left frustrated, even angry at Korine’s subversive, deceptive trap. “Oh you wanted a party?” – Korine seems to be saying – “well I’ll give you a party all right.”
Korine’s film is undeniably beautiful, even if the subject matter is dark. Captured by cinematographer Benoît Debie (Enter the Void, The Runaways), Spring Breakers is intentionally overstuffed with color, “lit by skittles” as Korine has taken to saying in interviews. It’s Miami Vice meets Candy Land aesthetic, its vibrancy and surface pleasures masking and coloring its darker, more foreboding actions. Color, light and effects are played with in incredible fashion, sometimes organically and sometimes intentionally, even shedding light on the racial subtext of the film. Race is inextricably linked with Korine’s Spring Break setting, especially as the girls move from the almost uniformly white party scenes (Korine repeatedly lingers on the one pair of black breasts in his looped party montages) to the almost uniformly black St. Pete criminal underworld.
Alien tells the girls of his upbringing as the only white guy in the African-American dominated community and Selena Gomez’s character bristles when taken to a dingy, hole-in-the-wall pool hall populated almost exclusively by leering black men, most portrayed as criminals – essentially the world Alien idolizes and represents. Some may charge racism and it’s an interesting discussion to have, but I don’t think Korine is being prejudiced; I think that he’s using these stereotypes and settings because they are stereotypical and thus feed the crime story that these white girls have entered into (some more voluntarily than others). At its conclusion, the two most audacious girls in the group – Alien’s “soul mates” – learn the real lessons and hard truths that they won’t find in stuffy college classrooms, where they, the privileged, ignore professors droning on about The Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. Incredibly the girls step onto a pier at night, where there bikinis glow fluorescent, their pink hoods turn blue and their skin becomes very dark indeed. When the deed is done and the bodies lay strewn, the girls are done, their education and indulgence complete as they head back to “normality” where their lives will go on and they likely will put their inner psychopath back in its bottle. It’s a startling, disturbing and amazing trick and it’s here at the end that the comparisons to Godard – specifically Weekend – seem applicable. It’s an interesting subtext to see and discuss and acts as just one example that Harmony Korine has something to say…whatever you think it may be.
I don’t necessarily know what it says about my generation when the films that have come to ostensibly reflect and define it – The Truman Show, Fight Club, Lost in Translation, Knocked Up, The Social Network, Tiny Furniture and now Spring Breakers – are movies generally featuring unlikable, sometimes dumb, characters who feel disconnected and lost, searching for something they aren’t sure exists or even if they want it if it does. Spring Breakers fits that, as these girls search for what they believe will be the greatest moment in their young lives, the time they’ve been told is a magical juncture when they get to live the fantasy that has been fed to them. However, while Spring Breakers is many things, some of them contradictions, what it is not is a standard “teens finding themselves” story. Harmony Korine isn’t just delivering a booze-and-coke fueled T&A party film ala Project X. He’s launched a full-out subversive assault of the MTV culture that has spawned not just what occurs in this movie, but the notions of “coolness” and “hotness” that a generation has grown up conditioned to believe and the “Spring Break Forever” lifestyle that has been corporately sponsored for a generation.
MTV’s Spring Break coverage, “The Real World,” “Jersey Shore,” “Cribs,” “Girls Gone Wild” – these are the ingredients that have fed the modern Spring Break culture and which permeate almost every image in Korine’s film, from endless, often looping shots of coeds on the beach flashing the camera and drinking beer via urination simulation, grinding and snorting coke off strangers bodies to even one of the highlights of the film – the notorious “Look at my sheeyit” monologue. Even the girls seem to be practicing for all the “fun” they’re going to have, mock-making out and grinding with each other before they even hit the sun-drenched festivities (even the darker aspects of the film are foreshadowed through the repeated sounds of guns being loaded, cocked and shot, from Vanessa Hudgens’ character in particular). But Korine isn’t interested in simply sermonizing “drinking is bad” or “snorting coke off some naked stranger is bad” or “waiving machine guns around while some gangsta-wannabe tickles the ivories and sings a Britney Spears ballad is bad” Spring Breakers is less a conservative warning than a deconstruction of the mythology behind the MTV version of Spring Break and later the sub-culture whose ideology is an nihilistic extension of it.
On the flip side, Korine’s neon-lit and hallucinatory dreamscape (i.e. the film) isn’t looking to titillate. Well, it’s not strictly looking to titillate. Charges of hypocrisy and exploitation have and will be leveled at the film and they are valid points. But I couldn’t help but remember what Godfrey Reggio, another very non-mainstream filmmaker, argued when countering claims of hypocrisy against Koyaanisqatsi. Reggio felt the best way to get his message across (that technology was and has thrown life out of balance) to the masses was to present it through the very thing it was criticizing and examining. So yes, Korine looks like he wants it both ways by reveling in and critiquing the sub-culture. The remarkable thing is that he succeeds, getting his cake and eating it too.
If you haven’t picked up on this yet, let me make this clear. This is an arthouse indie in the guise of a teen-centric T&A party yarn, a Trojan horse delivered unto multiplexes with a marketing campaign based mostly on the film’s four bikini-clad girls. And many, many folks will be caught off-guard, especially fans of Ms. Gomez (The Wizards of Waverly Place, Ms. Hudgens (the High School Musical films), Ms. Benson (ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars) and even Mr. Franco, the latter of whom established his blockbuster/family film bona fides earlier this month with the über-popular Oz the Great and Powerful. What on the surface seemed like stunt casting – and to a degree it is – actually adds yet another layer to Korine’s bacchanal-turned-nightmare. These girls, these Mouse House-produced pre-teen girl idols, are – like the characters they play – shaking off their safe, smiling Disney personas and venturing into a culture that is the polar opposite of their life and careers to this point. They finally get to drop the act, drop their guard and have a little fun. It’s inspired casting and turns what could have just been stunt casting to get people’s attention (which it is) into a natural extension of what is on screen.
While the film revolves around the four main girls, none except Gomez’s Christian good girl Faith are given much character depth (and even that seems one-dimensional branching out from what we see of her “faith,” her connection with her grandmother and her hesitant, naïve, good girl tendencies that tend to waiver). We instead get hints at the personalities behind the sly smiles and small swimsuits: Ashley Benson’s cold, menacing stare; Vanessa Hudgens’ aggressive wildness; Rachel Korine’s fearlessness and quasi-maternal role in the group dynamic. They act as a smaller extension of the larger Spring Break crowd, a group that moves together, plays together and feeds off each other. But when things start going from “sexy” out-of-control to “dangerous” out-of-control, the party starts to wind down and the group begins to splinter. They splinter because “real” danger is injected into the proceedings when Alien (Franco) bails them out of jail.
It is hard not to oversell James Franco’s performance in and contribution to Spring Breakers. Yes, he looks and sounds ridiculous, with his long cornrows, grillz and white Camaro with rims (and big gold $ symbols). He is – in almost every way – a caricature. Yet he’s also equal parts menacing and sweet, crazy and sentimental, a lost soul who maybe never had a chance but revels in and wholly exemplifies the “Spring Break Forever” mantra he lives by. Franco’s creation is exhilarating to watch, instantly takes the movie to another level and will likely be quoted for the rest of our lives. His “Look at my shit!” monologue alone is and will be the stuff of legend, a companion piece to another wannabe-gangsta favorite – Brian De Palma’s eminently quotable Scarface. There are also great interactions between Franco and the young ingénues Korine has surrounded him with, particularly his exchange with Gomez before she departs and with Hudgens and Benson (“y’all are my motherfucking soulmates”). Finally the pièce de résistance in Franco’s gonzo performance and probably of the film as a whole is a sequence in which Alien sits down to a piano (in the backyard next to the pool, naturally) and performs Britney Spears’ “Everytime” while a montage plays of the girls in their pink hoods holding machine guns and robbing fellow spring breakers. It’s a stunningly gorgeous, poignant and harrowing sequence, probably the best thing Korine has ever put to film.
To try and sum Spring Breakers up into a nice and tidy standard review is almost impossible and ultimately would be insulting and reductive. This is a complex film, but if all you see or want to see is what shimmers on the surface – the big booties, breasts and unabashed hedonism that is constantly, numbingly on display (which is on purpose, by the way), then that’s fine. You’re missing out on some of the film’s real thematic and subtextual pleasures, but that is your prerogative. I would imagine many people won’t know what they’re watching and won’t care to stick around to find out. In my midnight screening alone, there were three different walkouts. So if you are interested, I would say you should mentally prepare yourself. Just because it has Disney starlets in bikinis getting their party on and a crazy-looking and funny-sounding James Franco wacko performance, doesn’t mean this is easy or mainstream filmmaking. This is experimental, arthouse fare that has, through word-of-mouth, critical reviews and one of the most ingenious marketing campaigns I can ever remember, broken through to a wider audience. Much of that wider audience will recoil or revolt, but if you know what you’re in for, enough will luckily get the chance to see a visually stunning and challenging film on a big screen near them – the kind of feature that doesn’t make it to American multiplexes very often. Love it or hate it, Harmony Korine’s film about girls, guns and Spring Break will certainly leave its mark on the mainstream and give one of independent cinema’s true provocateurs his first sizable audience.