As far as rallying cries go, I suppose you can do worse than “spring break forever.” Even so, as Spring Breakers’ enigmatic Alien (James Franco) intones the words over and over, each syllable clawing through the speakers in the character’s arresting drawl, the sentiment becomes more of a meditation on excess. In the latest effort from oddball auteur Harmony Korine, Breakers lives and breathes to the staggered pulse of a writhing, bass heavy soundtrack. Meanwhile, Korine follows college students as they drink their way to assured blackouts, pleasure themselves to the point of insensate euphoria, and so on. However, as the film unfolds it avoids easy classification, skewering youth culture while still embracing its shortcomings. This is a feat that an artist like Korine is alone capable of, because he allows serious thought and playful irreverence equal footing. As a result, Spring Breakers stands as Korine’s most accessible feature to date, a mesmerizing depiction of a youthful generation that idolizes vice and feels the lure of self-destruction like a siren’s call.
The film begins with four college girls trying to raise funds for their spring break vacation. As a precursor to the debauchery they seek out, three of these girls rob a local gambling hall to bolster their fundraising. The fourth girl, Faith (Selena Gomez), remains blissfully unaware of the crime, but when the others recount the tale and shower her with stolen money, she readily embraces the rapture of sudden wealth. Following their departure, the girls remain perpetually clad in bikinis and assimilate to the wanton indulgences of a carnivalesque subculture. Through an almost lyrical string of sequences, the unending party of Spring Breakers gains an abstract, lurid prominence, which is then oddly juxtaposed with scenes of the girls bonding together.
For the first half of the film, the narrative examines the nature of this friendship, which flourishes in a seemingly inhospitable environment. However, when the girls are arrested at a party and bailed out by Franco’s Alien, Breakers tenuous narrative jumps the tracks. While Alien claims altruistic motives, Faith does not trust him and soon leaves for home amidst pleas for her friends to follow. Instead, they choose to stay with Alien, drawn to his lewd gravitas. As the remaining girls form an unlikely posse around a man who revels in his own quick wealth as a drug dealer, they absorb the violence of his world as a natural extension of their own. Soon after, Alien challenges a rival gang for territory and “his girls” go along with him, wearing pink ski masks that match their bikinis and hoisting automatic weapons as if they were cute accessories.
The two stories may seem incongruous, but are effectively tied together by the opening act of robbery. Early on, Faith presses her friends for details of their crime, and they playfully reenact the scene for her. Korine then intercuts this recreation with the crime itself, creating a jarring discord that heightens both the violence of the robbery and the girls’ casual detachment from it. By the time violence creeps back into the narrative, the carousal of spring break offers a fascinating surrounding context. By placing the two stories side by side, Korine instills the impression that among our society, violence and capital gain have become so ardently glorified that they manifest as sexualized desires. This commentary then becomes explicit in a scene in which Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Brit (Ashley Benson) hold Alien at gun point, threatening violence, only to squeal in delight as he performs fellatio on the barrel.
Furthermore, a bold casting move finds Hudgens and Gomez emerging from Spring Breakers baptized from their Disney careers, while Benson similarly breaks away from television roles on Days of Our Lives and Pretty Little Liars. As pillars of popular culture, their roles in Spring Breakers can speak intertextually to the broken nature of modern media, which remains largely responsible for fostering a consumerist impulse in our society. The alteration of star personas remains particularly intriguing with Hudgens and Gomez though, as both were part of a Disney machine that cajoles girls into thinking about clothing, make up, and jewelry at increasingly younger ages, arguably pushing them to become sexualized at increasingly younger ages, all for the sake of profit.
Beyond the creative use of casting, it is Gomez who exits the film looking particularly savvy for her transition into mature roles. After all, unlike the other characters Faith maintains a purity throughout Spring Breakers, having had no hand in the robbery and having used the vacation as a way to become closer to her friends. All at once, Faith can be part of the debauchery and utterly separate from it, evincing a naive innocence and sense of play amidst the carnal bedlam of sunny Florida. However, Faith’s virtue simply cannot stand to the film’s pressing demands, to Alien’s seduction of violence and material wealth, and when she leaves her purity leaves with her. Afterward, her friends succumb to Alien’s gravitational pull, failing to notice that the man is little more than a dying star ready to implode.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.