The drug-induced hysteria of the all-singing-all-drinking super glamorous MTV spring break used to be a staple of the college experience. Kids would waste hundreds, even thousands of dollars to spend five days dancing, swimming, and drinking their cares away with people they’ve never even met, a proverbial Mecca for the university age group. Part faux-documentary, part glitter pop coming of age story and part crime thriller, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is not only a meditation on the light and dark sides of the somehow still relevant MTV spring break, it peels its neon-colored veneer away to reveal an intriguing character study in Korine’s typically pulpy and uncompromising fashion.
Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Faith (Selena Gomez), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are four college girls taken by the spring break fantasy but lacking the cash to make their dreams come true; they resort to robbing a chicken shack to make ends meet and wind up on the next bus to Miami. Korine, notorious for his interest in youth culture that some consider borderline pedophilia, brings an almost documentarian approach to the joys of the archetypal spring break, blending glitz pop ambitions with grimy desperation; this first half of the film is more akin to the stories that Korine likes to tell of angst-ridden youth behind closed doors and the respective worlds that shape them (inner city in “Kids”, Midwestern wasteland in “Gummo”, the suburban nightmare in “Ken Park”).
Once the girls reach their paradise and begin to celebrate, “Spring Breakers” pulls a complete tonal 180; after a wrong-place-wrong-time arrest alludes to jail time for the quartet, amateur rapper and wanna-be gangster Alien (James Franco) becomes enamored of them, bails them out of jail, and attempts to use them as his own personal hit squad against fellow pusher Big Arch (Gucci Mane). In the character of Alien, James Franco has instilled a sense of tenderness and longing never explored in these kinds of films that gives “Breakers” a subversive edge; a man who is all at once laughably pathetic in his macho hustler posturing yet utterly sincere in his love for these adolescent bikini babes and the overall image he has created for himself. Franco steps outside of his ironic performance art bubble to expose the heart of this wannabe player.
“Spring Breakers” is being advertised as a film that seeks to “de-Disney-fy” starlets Gomez, Hudgens and Benson, and even though Gomez as church girl Faith is the only one given a stand-alone personality, all four girls truly come into their own on screen, simultaneously plumbing the depths of and showing the growth of the archetypal party girl, even if he has to give his girls a Deus Ex Machina shoot-out in order to tie up the loose ends.
That’s the film’s main problem; as wonderful as the faux-documentarian/crime thriller aspect is, Korine resorts to Deus Ex machina shoot-outs to bring about what would’ve otherwise been a messy ending. I suppose this ties into the fantasy role-playing aspect for the girls’ Spring Break dreams, a sort of an excuse to force a coming of age out of them while mowing down gangsters by the dozens, but it strikes me as a little insincere, especially from a director so steeped in honesty as Korine.
Harmony Korine is a filmmaker who has made a career of examining the American adolescent in every aspect, from the deeply personal to the morally obscene, but with “Spring Breakers”, Korine has found his mainstream sound horn in the pertinent fad of Spring Break; he isn’t simply looking to change the image of some Disney Channel stars or drown the crime thriller in college girl exploitation. Korine has created a slideshow of American excess dotted with rhinestones, a glitter pop wave of parties, crime, and unicorn ski masks.