Movie Review: Spring Breakers
I believe that the fairest criticism of any artistic medium should always be through the least biased, most objective view possible. However, for the purposes of Spring Breakers I find that I just can’t hold myself to that kind of integrity. To say that I’ve been excited about this movie for some time would be like saying that the summer breeze is only slightly beautiful or that swans are only slightly majestic. Spring Breakers has been my most anticipated film for some time now. Harmony Korine, the savant boy genius auteur who created the piece, was the director who opened my mind to the possibility of film. When I saw Gummo at the ever-impressionable age of thirteen, it changed my life. His movie making style was something I had never witnessed before: one that relied not on some stable narrative, but in exploring a dramatic and surreal atmosphere not made out of contrived scenarios or gripping characters, but the raw fabric of life itself; albeit, in its most unexplored and least exposed sectors. All of the films that have been produced by him zero in on outsiders, miscreants, and society’s overall disposed in ways that were boldly submersed in their alien culture and oddly empathetic, combining gritty realism with bizarre dialogue and a rich artistic eye that that forms a rich emotional landscape of colors none too clear but resonate deeply.
And so it was that I waited with baited anticipation to see how he would tackle his latest subject matter: Disney princesses. He may have first voyeured into the mainstream with his fairly mainstream (if offbeat) missed-classic Mister Lonely, but this was a film based around all-out, balls to the wall promotion and exploitation. “Is this some greater artistic end”, many fans wondered, “or a deliberate ‘fuck you’ and cashing in?” Not one to believe the worst, I was curious to see what new direction Korine would move into. Is the casting of former teen stars in this highly-controversial, R-rated body spectacle of horrors featuring excessive nudity, drug use, and all kinds of tomfoolety, an intentional act of subversion on the viewer?
The answer if: “of course”. But we’ll get to that later. First off, a brief introduction to Spring Breakers, for the uninformed. This hyper-stylized picture tells the story (loosely) of four college girls on a mission to have the “perfect Spring Break”, going to any ends to achieve their hedonistic goal, even if it means donning ski masks and holding up a convenience store for some extra cash. Once they arrive, though, they find that their youthful nirvana is cut short by a police intervention in a dirty apartment and a prison citation. All hope is lost until a rapper/hustler named Alien (pronounced Ail-een) bails their sorry asses out, but at a price. How down the spiral will the girls go to live up their week in Florida to the fullest?
Ultimately, the plot is irrelevant, and acts more as an energy source for the vibrant neon-lit whirlwind that unfurls for the next ninety-three minutes. To get to the essence of Spring Breakers, you have to understand that the movie is its own essence. Spring Breakers is not your average expected big-budget movie with the norms of a moral, a message, a plot, what have you. Spring Breakers is not about that; it’s a visual tone poem written in the language of the lowest and most decadent of our cultures. It doesn’t tell a story; it takes us to a place, captivates our imaginations for brief but shining hours into the psychotic and enticing thrill of crime and recklessness in the hearts of the young and wild. “Spring break” become a quasi-spiritual mantra repeated throughout by the characters as if it embodies their personal philosophy. Don’t try to pull a meaning out of it or judge the often horrifying events happening on screen – just take it for what it is and the feelings that it makes, for this is not merely a movie but impressionist art on a dirty canvas.
And what art it is. Korine, as expected, crams every inch of his candy-coated hi-gloss nightmare with a sensory overload of tackiness. The music, clothing, everything, is jacked up tenfold too maximum levels of garish intensity. The bass-jam dubstep blaring in your ears and barrage of bright bikinis and boardwalks commands your attention. This sounds like it’d be obnoxious, and it would be; if it weren’t for the sheer visual beauty of Spring Breakers, nothing here would succeed. But the effervescence of our girls’ world is an intricately designed visual landscape of neon pinks, greens, and yellows. EVERY single shot of this picture is beautiful. It’s best to just let the figures, shapes, and hues you see on screen wash over you and soak in your mind (a dirty, filthy, 21st century to James Whislter’s “Art for Art’s Sake”, maybe?) There were so many moments where I found myself unable to even explain what I saw happening on screen, or how they achieved the camera shots they did – not since Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void have I seen a film that so utterly befuddled and entranced me. The two, along with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, exist in the same downtown day-glo universe that has recently captured the public imagination, somehow parallel to ours yet not so far away, lying just below our waking reality (literally) I won’t spoil it for the readers, but there is one moment that has been mentioned already in many other reviews that will surely go down among art-film circles as one of the most incredible moments in 21st century cinema that occurs towards the picture’s apex. All I will say is that it involves pink leopard print, Britney Spears’s “Everytime”, and James Franco playing a piano by the seashore. What follows from the combination of these factors on screen results in a visual punch straight to somewhere far beyond the gut. You will nevetr hear the song the same way again.
Speaking of Franco: his performance as the delirious and insane Alien is masterful. As are all of the girls, in exhibitionist, daring roles that obviously took them far out of their comfort zones; though if you are looking for depth of character, stay away. Everyone here is intentionally flimsy and underdeveloped. Franco’s spiritual hustler persona only goes so far, and the girls (well, most of them)’s single minded focus on drugs and money resonate like hollow caricatures on purpose. Harmony’s distinctively understated, fly-on-the-wall style to depicting his characters’ contrastingly chaotic and unrestricted yet somehow flimsy behavior is an eerie juxtaposition, like a personal absurdist theater preformed by deranged social outcasts, but its appropriate. They are, after all, living in a dream world; what transpires from this week in hell (or heaven; your call) is just a brief sojourn from their mundane reality as college students – it is implied that things go back to normal after their temporary residency in this urban Sodom & Gomorrah is only ankle deep, a momentary reprieve for the stressed mind like cartoons or bowling (or, maybe, the violence depicted on TV – the kind that the girls take part in). We too, as film watchers, are engaging in this departure of reality every time we tune in and drop out to any movie, be it an ‘intellectual’ work or the latest Blockbuster. Not only does Harmony Korine blur that line between low and high art in Spring Breakers, but he also addresses our instinctual awareness of the movie going activity by intentionally casting an all-star list of who’s who’s. The whole time we are silently shaking our heads at the absurdity of the thing based on our pre-formed cultural knowledge. These are Disney princess, for crying out loud! And the Gucci Mane character – he’s not even acting! The film takes the form a fantasy in more ways than one; in the viewer’s mind, the conscious knowledge of who is in this movie is raised to a level of awareness not typically acknowledged. We assume that the people we are seeing on screenare who are they portraying, not Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, or Dennis Quaid or whoever else you can think of. Spring Breakers challenges that perception: Harmony ensured that this would be the case not just in his choice of actresses, but also in the inevitable massive media exposure that would form from the scandalous material of the movie’s content. In this sense, there are two Spring Breakers: the movie created in the public mind and the picture truly playing.
Something has to be said as well about the carnal treats this movie is rife with as well. Yes, there are scantily-clad and girls a plenty, a feature that is sure too boost box office revenue on the basis of sex appeal alone. There are about five sets of titties within the first five minutes, it’s true. But as the barrage of skin continues on, the body no longer holds the erotic value it once did. The girls’ constantly exposed flesh becomes just that: flesh. These women’s supple features are reverted back to the form that the great masters saw them as when they made their great paintings: another part of the aesthetic fabric of Spring Breakers‘s alternate reality. The sure-to-be-infamous threesome scene, featuring some incredible camerawork in underwater technology, fails to be so arousing as it is strange, horrific, and mesmerizing all at once.
It’s up to the audience what they want to see in this movie. I can tell you one thing, though – when Harmony says in interviews (as he has many times) that he wants “everyone” to see this film, he isn’t kidding. Korine has thrusted experimental, adventurous, genre-defying filmmaking into the center stage in a manner without precedence. Curious people from the world over, including Teen-Beat subscribed teenybopper and mothers taking their younger offspring without knowing any better, may not like the content on screen, but it’s not going to be something that leaves their minds any time soon. What’s more important is that the material of this picture may ignite much-needed conversation about the connection between violence and sexuality, the nature of good and evil (as the two worlds are at war in the conflicted and bizarre mind of Alien), the cultural expectations placed on women in the mainline western world, and the reality of supposedly idyllic spring breaks and beach parties as they are portrayed to many young girls. Not only that, but the unconventional approach towards narrative and storytelling that Harmony has crafted will, with any hope, broaden public perceptions on what a ‘movie’ should be and inspire new breeds of filmmakers to create increasingly bold and daring films – but that, is, of course, a long term goal.
There is a world that could be written about the extravagant majesty contained here. But the main thing that you should take away from this rambling mess of a review is that Spring Breakers rules. As Korine has also said himself, in an interview with Pitchfork about the music of the film soundtrack’s unlikely star, Britney Spears: “It’s poppy and airless and morose and beautiful, but underneath, I always felt like there was a violence and a pathology.” The same can be said for the way that Harmony is asking us to look at our world in this film – those things that we view as simply Dionysian side-adventures, like wild partying on the beach in late March, can lead down all trails of mayhem and disaster if one lets themselves truly ‘go crazy’ enough. But, as he also said of the tragic hero Mrs. Spears, she’s “more than a person – she’s like energy” In the same way, Spring Breakers is more than film – it’s an abstract LiteBrite dream that stimulates the senses and dazzles the mind while painting an uncomfortable picture for the dazed and morally confused 21st century world. This movie is more relevant than this year’s Oscar winner will be; see this movie, for in a few years time it will be held in similarly revered status to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Oh yes, I went there.