The enfant terrible of American arthouse cinema is at it again in this shamelessly controversial witches’ brew of sexploitative teen drama, dreamscape and MTV’s Cribs.
Since making his name as the writer of Larry Clark’s headline-grabbing Kids back in 1995, Harmony Korine’s directorial career has crashed, banged and walloped through one two-fingered salute after another, most recently in 2009’s self-explanatory Trash Humpers.
Whilst unmistakably a Korine film, Spring Breakers is his most mainstream and accessible work to date and the first movie of his career to turn a profit.
Obsessed with ditching college for an epic spring break blowout – but short of cash to do so – Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brittany (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, wife of Harmony) put on pink balaclavas (bringing to mind the Putin-bashing Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot) and rob a fast food restaurant.
The trio, joined by the God-fearing Faith (Selena Gomez), head down to Florida for drink, drugs and wild beach parties and fall in with the charismatic Alien (James Franco), a self-proclaimed “hustler … a gangster with a heart of gold” who’s engaged in a turf war with Big Arch (rapper Gucci Mane). The craziness become too much for Faith, but for the others this is the chance to enjoy “spring break forever”.
Spring Breakers shares a similar sensibility to Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring in its unvarnished portrayal of a group of young American teenagers consumed by self-entitlement and dazzled by all things materialistic. Candy and co see it as their right to go on spring break and feel no guilt at robbing the store, indeed they “pretend it’s a video game”.
There’s a certain gratuitousness to Korine’s camerawork, exacerbated by the fact the girls are dressed in flourescent bikinis throughout, but he also often uses harsh lighting to both desexualise them and highlight the ugliness of their characters. The film is shot through with blue and red filters (at one point a friend of Faith’s suggests Candy, Brittany and Cotty have “got demon blood in them” before we see them bathed in red, hellish light), while UV lighting is also used to add an otherworldly nature to the film.
Korine also uses repetition of dialogue to lend Spring Breakers a hallucinatory quality, while the increasingly fantastical narrative supports this notion.
While Candy, Brittany and Cotty are happy living in their own little fantasy worlds, their minds are blown when their encounter Alien, a gold-toothed drug dealer and self-styled personification of the American Dream who at one point tells the girls: “Everyone’s always tellin’ me you gotta change. I’m about stacking change. I’m about making money.”
Alien is consumerism personified – his flashy car has hub caps with dollar signs on them, while his mantra “look at my shit!” is repeated ad infinitum while proudly pointing out all the stuff he owns. He also shows off his guns and love of Scarface (“I got Scarface on re-peat; I got it on constantly!”) as if he’s trying to convince not just the girls of his gangster credentials but himself too.
Franco brings just the right balance of humour, pathos, arrogance and fear to the larger-than-life Alien and he’s without doubt Spring Breakers‘ star turn. Hudgens and Benson are also impressive as the vacuous college girls blinded by self-delusional platitudes about the spiritual benefits their violent crime spree is providing.
There are moments when the film really hits the mark, not least of which in the oddly sweet (and tongue-in-cheek) moment when Korine intercuts a heartfelt Alien playing Britney Spears’ Everytime on his piano to the balaclava-clad girls with footage of them breaking peoples’ faces and robbing them of their stuff. The scene plays as a clever mirror image to a scene earlier in the film when the girls happily sing Spears’ Baby One More Time.
A weird, hallucinatory trip down the trashy corridors of its director’s headspace, Spring Breakers is a one-of-a-kind and for that alone it deserves to be seen.