Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review - Spring Breakers (2013)

Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers is a waking dream drenched in loud bass and louder colors. It drips with nostalgic melancholy and utter bitterness, telling a coming of age story that repurposes the American Dream into an American Nightmare. Its hazy visuals and slightly out of sequence events play wonderfully into the dreamland aesthetic of the film, as does its constant repetition of dialogue and events. As dreams often do, Spring Breakers snaps violently from pleasure to terror and back at a moment's whim. It's garishness, dirt, and sleaze combine to form the most interesting movie I've seen so far this year.

(As a personal aside: This is the 100th review I've written for this blog since starting it last year. Thanks to everyone for the support!)

The story focuses on four college students desperately searching for an escape from their daily routine. Faith (Selena Gomez) is the point of view character for the first half of the film, a young Christian in the midst of a spiritual crisis who desperately spouts largely empty philosophy. Her three best friends are the pink-haired Cotty (Rachel Korine) and the interchangeable Britt (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), who at times feel like sororal twins.When money the four girls had been saving for a spring break vacation ends up falling short of their expectations, Candy and Britt take it upon themselves to rob a local diner to fund the trip, using Cotty as a getaway driver and leaving Faith at home. The girls head to Florida for a week of debauchery, eventually leading to an arrest when a party gets busted. They're bailed out by Alien, an aspiring rapper with a bombastic personality played absolutely perfectly by James Franco.

Immediately when the movie begins, the audience is greeted by a wall of sound, gratuitous nudity, and excessive drinking. The film neither condemns nor embraces these images here; it remains a neutral observer, watching the chaos of the St. Petersburg beach. The opening scene isn't meant to be either entirely erotic or disgusting, though it certainly has elements of both. The insanity of excess is on trial here, but individual actions taken by themselves really aren't. More importantly, Korine uses the abrupt, in-your-face nudity of the opening scene to desensitize viewers to the content that follows, much as violent horror films often desensitize viewers to what's coming by opening with a brutal death scene.

Korine isn't wagging a finger at the individual party-goers on screen, but rather offering a condemnation of the excess of The Youtube Generation, much in the way American Psycho condemns not businessmen as individuals but the excess of 1980's America and its erosion of individuality. Views of parties often switch back and forth between properly lit, high quality shots filmed on nice cameras and low-grade, grainy shots taken on cellphones. The camera shots present a colorful, lively party; the phone shots present the exact same images, but they've now become grossly anarchic.

I can't stress enough how much I like the look of this movie. It's saturated at all times, whether by blinding sunlight, by oppressive darkness, or by glowing neon. It's a constant assault on the senses, which is a perfect way to be drawn into the film's dreamlike world. One of its final scenes takes place on an eerie pink/purple dock accompanied by a swinging camera and heroines dressed in swimsuits that glow under the scene's black lights. Both hideous and beautiful, it's one of the most visually compelling scenes in the film and the ultimate culmination of its dreams and nightmares theme.

There's a lot to dig through in Spring Breakers, in stark contrast to the empty, exploitative tone of its original trailer (the red band trailer is much more accurate to the film's tone, but gives away too much plot.) While I don't actually think marketing is generally important to a film's message (since more often than not its creators have little to no say in how a film is marketed), Spring Breakers actually had a nearly perfect ad campaign. The trailer focuses on the debauchery with only the slightest hint that something deeper's under the surface, which matches well the expectations of its four leads. It's easy for some to be put off or disgusted by the images in the trailer, as much of it paints the experience as Girls Gone Wild: The Movie. The posters play up the dream/nightmare aspect, with half of them showing cute girls having a good time and half being neon weirdness that you'd never suspect were from the same film. Whether by intent or by happy circumstances, I feel these two posters in combination perfectly sum up the movie:

This absolutely isn't a movie for everyone, but I thought it was great and very much worthy of analysis. You need a high tolerance for amoral heroes who have no interest in redemption, and you'd better be comfortable with nudity. The movie judges the characters, but never chastises them, while at once judging the audience. It's very much in the tradition of metacommentary found in Michael Haneke's 1997 horror film Funny Games and Yager Development's 2012 shooter Spec Ops: The Line. These are all works that present (to varying degrees of success) a compelling narrative while simultaneously presenting horrible events and saying to the audience, "This is what you came for, you monsters." Whether in video game or film form, it's a form of interaction between the audience and the art that I find alluring even when I find the content repellant.

From this point on, I'm going to discuss some specific, major plot points. Do not read on if you wish to go in unspoiled.

I love movies that play with the expectations of both the audience and the characters. I'm a staunch defender of Ridley Scott's Prometheus in large part for this reason, and Spring Breakers is another example of taking this philosophy to an extreme. The four girls, especially Faith, have a very exact image of what spring break means to them; they see it as a spiritual pilgrimage that will free them from the shackles of their academic life. They know exactly what they want and where to go, and are almost always in control of their environment. In the few moments where control is lost, things spiral out of control and one of the foursome is lost.

The moment in the film that changes its course is the drug bust that lands the girls in a short stay in jail before being bailed out by Alien. Afterward, Alien takes the girls to a local pool hall to hang out with some of his friends, and Faith is immediately shaken. She looks at the people drinking and smoking in this mostly black establishment made up of locals and panics, crying that she doesn't like it here and that this wasn't what she wanted. She tells her friends and Alien that she doesn't belong here. Her expectations are shattered; she doesn't say so directly, but she wants fun times on the beach with rich tourists. The college students we see partying on the beach feel far more dangerous than anyone at this relaxed pool hall ever does, but Faith's racial, class, and expectation bigotry emerges here. The audience identifies her from the start as The Good Girl, but this scene shakes that image in a very human way. After this scene, she leaves and returns to college.

This scene also establishes an audience bias against Alien. He acts creepy and manipulative, asking Faith to stay against her wishes. He touches her face, speaks softy through his shining grills, and just oozes sleaze. The way he behaves is unacceptably creepy, but as we later learn, he's never a danger to the girls. He's a little stupid and very socially stunted, but he never means any harm towards Faith and her friends. Alien asks her to stay, but doesn't object when she ultimately decides to leave. The immediate expectation is that Alien is an awful person, but ultimately he becomes the most sympathetic character in the film.

The film's race/class divide comes up more blatantly in the pool hall scene, but also shows up in at least two other major points; the first scene we see at the girls' college is a lecture hall with a professor discussing the civil rights movement, and the final scene of the film cuts between shots of beach partiers, mostly white, juxtaposed with dead black men. This paints Spring Break as less of a spiritual awakening and more an imperialist invasion. Alien's downfall is in being seduced by the allure of this invasion, even when he expresses vocal disgust at it.

Alien splits his time between rapping and selling drugs with the help of two twin gremlins who serve as his silent Tweedledee and Tweedledum. He's a small time criminal who has accumulated a decent amount of wealth, but nothing compared to his childhood best friend, now violent rival, Big Arch (a man with a face tattoo of an ice cream cone and a giant, gaudy ice cream pendant.) Alien takes great pleasure in taking the girls to his mansion and showing off his material possessions, but here he feels less like a superstar and more like a little kid excited to show his friends his toys. For all his exuberant boasting (again played perfectly by Franco), Alien's toys don't amount to much; he screams "I've got shorts! Every fuckin' color!" shows off a collection of standard baseball caps, brags about being able to use two colognes at once, proudly announces he has "dark tanning oil," and shows off a collection of weapons that he has absolutely no idea how to use, ranging from assault rifles that he never successfully uses to "numb chucks." He drops both Star Trek and Star Wars references and jumps up and down on his bed. He even tells us he has his favorite flavor of Kool-aid on hand. When he initially takes the girls to his home, the audience expectation is that he has his mind set on sexual conquest, but it isn't so; he's just the kid that wants to "show all my shit." Like most of the central cast, Alien is essentially a child stuck in an adult body.

By far the most interesting character in the film, Alien becomes its point of view character in the second half once Faith goes home. He puts on a persona that alternates between guru and gangsta, never fully sure what to make of himself. Franco's expressions hold a subtle blend of excitement and horror. He leads Cotty, Candy, and Britt on a crime spree, robbing fellow spring breakers, but lets the girls do most of the heavy lifting while he hollers enthusiastically. He sees them as new toys, not in a sexist, derogatory sense, but as a kid playing with army men and toy guns. The girls soon turn the tables on him, turning him into their possession. Candy and Britt hold Alien at gunpoint, seeming very willing to kill him and take the items he so proudly paraded for them. He survives by entering into a moment of submissive humiliation in which he performs sexual acts on a gun that Britt holds to his head.

From this moment on, Alien is no longer a larger than life persona. He belongs to Britt and Candy, both as a lover and as a tool to further their psychotic ambitions. Even when these three appear absolutely happy together, Alien still appears deeply sad. The crimes he takes the girls to feel less like macho posturing and more like, again, a child desperately seeking approval. When the film reaches its climax, Britt and Candy lead Alien to Big Arch's mansion to go on a murder spree in revenge for a drive by shooting that wounded Cotty. The expectation is that they'll all die in this assault, but that Alien will at least do something cool after all his boasting. Instead, he goes down to a single bullet from an unnamed soldier without ever firing one of his own, and the girls walk through the mansion invincible, gunning down every man they come across and leaving untouched. Earlier, one of them says, "Just pretend like it's a video game." Not only do they do so, but they've also turned on a God Mode cheat. They were, in the end, always in control.

The most interesting parts of the film are Alien's quest for acceptance and the psychology of the four girls. The loud-mouthed drug dealer with terrible fashion and horrible social graces being the most sensitive, sympathetic character in the film was a great twist, and worked as well as it did thanks to Franco's performance, which I really can't praise hard enough. He's a violent criminal, but he's not a monster, and this plays a key role in the film as a judgment of society and the monsters it makes, rather than the judgement of individuals.

When looking at the four girls, it's important to look at them both as individuals and as a collective. Faith has, by far, the most individual personality of the four. She's given the most back story, has a complete character arc, and serves as the group's conscience, criticizing their more disturbing tendencies. Faith is the super-ego. In order for the group to commit its crimes, it's essential that Faith not be present; the early diner robbery occurs without her in attendance, and the darker crimes in Florida only happen once she's out of the picture. Cotty serves as the group's ego. She goes along with the robberies and never judges, but she keeps Britt and Candy from completely losing control. Once she's shot in the arm in Arch's drive by, Cotty violently awakens from the dream world and goes home. Her role in the story ends, but with both Cotty and Faith gone, Britt and Candy lose any moderation they once had, giving in to pure id. With Cotty pushed aside, the remaining girls give in to their sexual desire for Alien and their fetishistic hunger for violence, moving from robbery to murder.

Faith, wounded emotionally, existed to say "This is morally wrong, we need to stop." Cotty, wounded physically, existed to say "This physically hurts, we need to stop." With their friends gone, Britt and Candy can awaken into unstoppable sociopaths with no regard for human life. They aren't emotionally dead; they clearly do feel passion for Alien, even as they manipulate him to his eventual death. However, they operate with cold, mechanical perfection, acting in the end more as Terminators than as humans. Not a single one of Big Arch's dozen soldiers can shoot them, and every bullet fired by Candy and Britt kills with perfect accuracy. They are in the end a force of nature, burning their way across town without fear of either emotional or physical pain, butchering a culture that isn't theirs. Girls that once looked like they could be the victims of horror now become the slasher movie monster. The diner robbery that took place earlier in the story was loud, angry, and messy. The mansion shoot out is devoid of any of this, to the point that most of the victims who are shot and killed don't even show a drop of blood. It's absolutely surgical in its performance.

Each of the four girls calls home to their parents at some point in the film. Faith reassures her family that she's a good girl and that she's staying out of trouble; while she tells some obvious lies, she IS smart enough to bail once things really turn bad. It's refreshing to see a character who says "I've got a bad feeling about this" actually follow up on that feeling and get out unharmed while she can. When Britt and Candy make their calls, they promise to come home and become Good People, but it's transparent and emotionally empty. This isn't a call to tell their parents that they love them, or to reassure them that they're safe. It's soldiers leaving a final letter before going to battle, knowing that they're going to die. Britt and Candy leave the scene of the massacre unharmed, but their humanity is effectively dead. Wherever they go from here, they're not the same people they were at the beginning and there's no going back. The ultimate question as the film ends, as in American Psycho, isn't what was real or what will happen next, but rather, whether society even cares. Evil, real or imagined, can go unpunished in a world that doesn't care, which serves as a major foundation for the nihilistic tone of the film's final act.

Spring Breakers is a film that challenges its audience both as individuals and as a collective. It absolutely isn't saying "don't do drugs and don't have sex." This isn't a morality play where the bad girls get punished; if anything it's an inversion of the slasher film trope in which characters who have sex on screen almost always die. Its heroines absolutely assert themselves as the ones in power at almost all times. It's a power fantasy with women in command instead of muscle men with buzz cuts. It doesn't condemn people for having ludicrous parties, but rather America for creating a society where the only way someone can feel free is to flee to a fantasy. It's a grimy, lurid, and hard film, and will likely remain one of the year's best.


  1. Good review. The result of this movie is something that's equal parts enjoyable and uncomfortable. It is challenging, raw, gritty, sad and real, but worth a watch.

    1. Thanks for reading! Equal parts enjoyable/uncomfortable definitely sums it up. I kind of wish I'd seen it at a busier theater to see more audience reactions.

  2. Excellent movie and excellent review. Spring Break Forever.