More than being just a dizzying odyssey of ass and bong rips, Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” captures our beautifully tragic train wreck of a youth culture in all its first-world glory. The film had its U.S. premiere at SXSW last Sunday at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, and jaws dropped as it opened with a YouTube clip of basically naked, barely legal girls pounding down beer and shaking their tits to the throbs of Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” on some lifeguard-forsaken beach in east Florida. This sequence repeats within the plotline of “Spring Breakers” until the grin that was on everyone’s face in the first minutes faded to a numbing roll between horror and apathy.
Four small-town college girls — played by Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars), the director’s wife, Rachel Korine and Disney royalties Selena Gomez nude and Vanessa Hudgens — get so over their stale lives that they decide to rob a restaurant to go on vacation. They ride screaming on scooters wearing bikinis, high on everything in sight that they could snort and are reckless to the point of landing themselves in jail. James Franco’s character, Alien, a tattoo-covered drug dealer who raps and collects guns as a pastime, comes to the rescue, taking the girls to his crazy mansion, worlds away from what began as innocent angst.
If it weren’t for Korine’s dreamlike directing style, the film may as well have been titled “First World Problems” and the target audience would not have been too far from those of Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” But what Melina Matsoukas romanticized of our party culture when directing the music video — having someone to help block out how overwhelming it feels to be young — Korine guts. “Spring Breakers” is anything but hopeful of the salvation of love promised in pop music. Instead, the four girls are alone and scrambling to find adventure, independence, power — the thrills promised to all by Hollywood — in iconic American landscapes of desolate parking lots and dirty beaches.
The camera is incredibly exploitative of the female body, but Korine does so with a keen understanding of a specific trauma that young women go through: negotiating the confusing balance between being told that being sexually appealing equates to being desired, but then being chastised when using sexuality for power. The casting choices bring this paradox to the forefront, especially because Gomez and Hudgens are growing up — as are their fans — and breaking from their previous identities. Rachel Korine grew up in the Bible Belt in Tennessee before meeting Harmony at age 17, and her execution of the wildly sexual and self-sabotaging college girl played like a satisfying release of the behaviors she never got to live out as a teenager.
Franco has completely lost his sanity by this point, but has gained the transcendent ability to fully step into the strangest, most compelling characters. Alien is so out of this world that his livelihood somehow becomes unquestionable. Unsurprisingly, the character is based off a real person, an unsigned rapper from St. Petersburg, Florida named Dangeruss — someone most people would never want to actually meet in person, but would love more than anything to watch for hours on screen. Franco’s performance, as dopey and deluded as his character may be, is brilliant in portraying a radically alternate route to “success” in contemporary America.
Sex and violence never stop intensifying even until the last scene, but the payoff does plateau. Even Benson’s perfect body becomes redundant, and the indulgent lifestyle of hot tubs and threesomes dreary. After the super-speed flurry of parties and drugs, the last third of the film is purposefully structured to feel like a despairing reach to sustain that high — anything to avoid the dreaded comedown.
What works best are the interactions between the five characters. Benson commented during the red carpet that Korine was never disapproving of their improv choices and really pushed the actors to do what felt right in each scene. “Spring Breakers” is a departure from the director’s past work in terms of content but is an accessible, highly entertaining way to experience the unsettling emotional terrains consistent in all his films, and will give Korine the mainstream recognition that he has long deserved.