People often joke that the damned are better off than the souls destined for heaven because “hell is where the party’s at”. The saying (or rather the argument it hyperbolically posits) holds some merit, but it seems to me the notion of a never-ending shindig carries its own brand of torture. Consider the cesspool of booze, drugs, and nubile flesh presented in Harmony Korine’s disturbing new film, Spring Breakers, the way it assaults us from the very first frame with its relentless vapidity.
Every aspect of Spring Breakers fascinates me, even its adverts, which show three former Disney princesses (and the director’s wife) fondling automatic weapons whilst posing like bikini porn stars. God help anyone who finds the image appealing. Mind you, it does capture the gist of the movie, wherein our so-called heroines head to Florida and pit their lives against worsening odds, all in the name of youthful exhuberance. We shake our heads in embarrassment when one of them exclaims, “This is our chance to see the world!” Uh, no, darling, this would be the sight of your own navel filled with sweat and hard liquor.
I don’t mean to suggest that Spring Breakers itself comes across as empty or exploitive. All four protagonists have complex, nuanced personalities, and their experiences inform us not just of the spring break phenomenon but also of the way each girl approaches life in general. Cotty (Rachel Korine), for example, likes to set artificial boundaries for herself, moaning and convulsing as boys poor booze over her naked body but reminding them every thirty seconds that they will not have sex. Faith, wouldn’t you know it, is the pious one, playing to Selena Gomez’ carefully maintained image. That leaves Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), whom, at one point, the cheerleader from Glee (Heather Morris) accuses of having demon blood.
I’m tempted to take the claim literally, as it would help explain the film’s unlikely climax. What’s more, Spring Breakers has got a truckload of religious imagery, from the random shots of Faith standing in a church to the inclusion of a silver-jawed drug dealer whose childhood, as he tells it, bears a striking resemblance to Lucifer’s origin story. Halfway into the movie, Alien (James Franco) shows up to bail our four delinquents out of jail, and we start to wonder whether the girls are being courted by the devil himself or just the spirit of spring break.
James Franco plays the character with mesmerizing abandon, conveying a creature devoid of human guile but devoted to the idea of always doing the wrong thing. I love the scene in which he fools around alone on the piano, singing about each of our four protagonists as if he’s always known their fates. Brit and Candy eventually get the upper hand on him, but the turn of events doesn’t come as a shock so much as a twisted sort of foreplay between kindred embodiments of sociopathic hedonism. “Spring break forever,” Alien keeps chanting. We know however that the party has to end at some point.
Key pieces of dialogue get repeated over and over in Spring Breakers. That’s because every scene is intercut with shots of the recent past and near future so that the girls’ journey feels less like a cautionary tale than a wild stream of consciousness. The director even mixes in lines from alternate takes, providing us with an impression of what’s happening as opposed to a concrete understanding of events. Despite all of this, I can’t think of a single moment when I felt confused or jerked around. Instead, I spent the entire runtime captivated by the subtle way Korine is stretching cinematic language.
For this reason alone, I feel I have to recommend Spring Breakers despite not fully comprehending what the filmmakers meant to communicate about the spring break practice. Korine obviously doesn’t approve of it, depicting the crowded beaches of Florida as a black hole paved with the flesh of giddy, inebriated children. What, though, is the cause of this ritualistic debauchery? Are we sheltering our kids too much, as evidenced by Faith’s flabbergasting naïveté, or does the responsibility lie in the tradition itself, which can apparently inspire youths to commit grand larceny just for a chance to drink cheap beer from a stranger’s crotch? It’s nice to have something to think about after the party.