The Strange Beauty of ‘Spring Breakers’

Rating: 3.25 stars (out of 4)

I’m not sure another movie has produced a bigger disconnect between its teased images and final product than Spring Breakers.  The advance buzz promised…well, let’s not sugarcoat this—a T&A film with a bunch of attractive, heretofore-innocent girls going sexy, plus James Franco as a BAMF gangster.  And it’s not that SB entirely forsakes those who wanted to see nice girls gone wild or Franco gone rogue.  But the overall product is so weird, so unpredictable, and so enjoyable in unexpected ways that most theater-goers must have walked out completely nonplussed.

Spring Breakers

It behooves us to dispense with a quick plot summary before delving into the insanity.  The brain-child of writer-director Harmony Korine, SB follows four teenage girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, the irony of the good-girl casting lost on no one) desperate to go to Florida for their college’s annual spring break.  Lacking the funds they need for such a trip, they decide to rob a road-side diner before hitting the highway.  Soon after, the police get involved in their partying, but their stint in jail is cut short by a bail-out from a man named, yes, Alien (Franco).  Everything that happens after can only be witnessed on your own, as SB will toy with conventions and your emotions like a cat with a string.

Korine jacks up the intensity and then throttles it back, proffering moments alternately visceral and thoughtful, reckless and pre-ordained.  He has his cake and eats it, too, highlighting the glamour of contemporary spring break while still condemning it.

Korine jacks up the intensity and then throttles it back, proffering moments alternately visceral and thoughtful, reckless and pre-ordained.  He has his cake and eats it, too, highlighting the glamour of contemporary spring break while still condemning it.  He keeps you forever unsure of when things will happen lightning-fast and when he’ll let Selena Gomez gently ruminate on the beauty of friendship.  The movie’s as accessible as it is challenging—it’s pretty and ugly all at once, a designed paradox, and I still have no idea how he did it.

Korine films this movie as a complete hypnotic rush.  It’s close to the cinematic equivalent of the music genre shoegaze—with those haunting, ethereal images, those repetitive voice-overs, those dreamy and swirling visuals, and the time jumps, you feel like you should be listening to My Bloody Valentine simultaneously.

Yet it’s rougher around the edges.  Indeed, the whole thing can be viewed as progressing from pretty to vicious.  Early on, it’s an orgy of sexiness; by the climax, an orgy of violence.  A critical robbery is initially filmed hauntingly, from a distance, in an almost soothing way; later, you see the rage and aggression underpinning it.  By the end, you understand—witness three characters walking up a dock, pink neon lights surrounding our field of vision, Franco’s “feels like a dream” dialogue echoing in our brains like shoegaze vocals.  And just when you’re drifting out, just when you want to enjoy it, the other figure comes out of the distance, the spell is broken, and the dream is over.

Amidst the weirdness and visual beauty, Korine’s message still rings loud and clear.  As his oblivious girls lap up the Miami surf and coo “This place is like paradise” and “I never want to leave” and blah blah blah, he jacks up the foreboding tones, highlighting their foolishness.  The fact that many situations feel fantastical doesn’t dull the force of his message.  The point, of course, is that the consequences these girls endure aren’t THAT far from what you might face on a normal spring break.  No, you might not become collateral damage in a rap feud, but if you constantly act with no regard for consequences, bad things will happen.  But it’s Korine’s willingness to still have fun in the process that keeps the message from making you feel 60 years old.

Franco’s character is obviously nuts.  But—as he shows in a killer mid-point scene with Gomez, when you still haven’t decided if he’s creepy or benevolent—he’s all-too-similar to many sleazy guys you could meet on your own vacation.  Those are the guys who might ultimately mean you no intentional harm, but whom you should probably stay away from anyway—like the borderline date-rapey guy we see flirting with the girls early in this film.

The pivotal diner robbery is initially shown in a way unlike how you’d expect—we only get it from a single, unbroken shot of the get-away car making a calm, slow circle around the victimized restaurant.  But then ‘look closer,’ as Korine lets us when he goes back inside the moment, and we experience the violence and rage within the girls that makes their ruse succeed.  But such aggression doesn’t even really come from anywhere, and that’s the point—it’s all because they’ve been socialized to it, or because they just want to, or because they think it won’t matter.  They don’t think anything will matter.

I must note that I’m typically the last person who would typically enjoy this kind of movie.  When I hear words like ‘artsy’ or ‘experimental’ with my movies, I tense up and start shaking like a PTSD victim.  I want my movies to have plots, and forward momentum, and piles of conflict, and strong cause/effect relationships—features that ‘indie’ films too often view as optional.  Spring Breakers feels like the kind of movie that Billy Walsh would strive to direct, and that terrifies me, as it should anyone.

Yet Spring Breakers held my interest, retaining just enough humanity to offset its coldness.  Where it loses a few points is in the somewhat thin story; I understand that making three of the girls interchangeable with each other reflects something about our society, but movies still work better with distinctive characters, and SB could have been a classic if the four girls were all memorable in their own right.

The one character who does work exceedingly well is Franco’s ‘Alien.’ (“Truth be told, I’m not from this planet, y’all.”)  Just as the film itself will disappoint those looking for a regressive, T&A-heavy jaunt, Franco will confound people who just look at that DVD cover.  You expect a typical gangster, and then you get this sad, bizarre little man who’s not nearly as bad as he wants.  The greatness of Franco’s performance—and let’s not get this twisted, it’s Oscar-caliber—lies in the way he grounds Alien in sadness.  This is fundamentally a pathetic, lonely character, and he realizes that.  He’s a badass, but he’s not really a badass, but he knows that, too, and seems rather OK with it.

Alien is a substantial reason why there’s little reason to read a review of Spring Breakers expecting to understand what the film is like.  Because, let’s be honest, if I pitched you the idea of Franco—with cornrows, a metal grill, and dollar-sign tattoos—playing Britney Spears’s “Everytime” on a piano, on a beach in fading sunlight, as three scantily-clad teens sing along with him, sporting ski masks and machine guns—AND promised that it works spectacularly, you’d think I was certifiable.  And, after seeing it, you still might.  This film won’t work for everyone.  But if you give it a chance, you just might find that Korine manages to get his message across in a bizarrely hypnotic, pretty, and coarse way, so unexpected that you’re convinced he must have been a magician to pull it off.

Grant J.

Grant J.

Grant co-founded Earn This in 2009 and is a regular contributor. His music taste makes him seem a lot weirder and sadder than he really is.

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