‘Spring Breakers’ a fascinating, messy mix of art project and experimental film

spring breakers posterSpring Breakers

Directed by Harmony Korine

Written by Harmony Korine

USA, 2013

Spring Breakers could be accused of many things, such as being a gleeful mix of moralistic hand-wringing and heedless excess, but it cannot be accused of not trying. This 90-minute mélange of modern juvenilia is a gaudy, fluorescent, drug-fueled trip, as much an experimental art project as it is a movie. There’s no mistaking that Spring Breakers often fails at various tenets of modern storytelling, but it’s a strangely compelling, never boring piece of filmmaking, as cheerfully in-your-face and unsubtle as self-aware exploitation can be.

Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, best known for their work on the Disney Channel, go big or go home in trying to strip away any family-friendliness as two of the leads of Spring Breakers. They play Faith and Candy, alongside Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, wife of writer-director Harmony Korine). This quartet of college students at a nondescript American university want desperately to go to St. Petersburg, Florida for spring break, but don’t have the cash. They (sans Faith) rob a diner, and after doing so, take a lengthy vacation punctuated by coke, pot, beer, sex, and, eventually, an arrest. The coeds are soon bailed out by a menacing rapper-cum-criminal (James Franco) who’s got potentially nefarious plans for them.

spring-breakers-selena-gomez-vanessa-hudgens

There is likely something profoundly disturbing to consider regarding Franco’s performance as Alien. He looks exceptionally comfortable in one second of this movie than he ever is in all of Oz the Great and Powerful. As soon as he appears here, Franco injects Spring Breakers with a deliciously gonzo energy. Whatever flaws this film has, it features a sequence where Franco, dreadlocks swinging around his shoulders, metallic dentures flashing, sings the Britney Spears ballad “Everytime” while playing on a white piano positioned outside of his ostentatious mansion while the young women, wearing pink ski masks, twirl in a circle and hold machine guns giddily. Nothing so ridiculous and trainwreck-level watchable can be all bad. Korine is often able to capture or produce striking images, even disconnected from each other. Aside from his striking visual eye, Franco’s the best thing about Spring Breakers, jumping about impishly with personality and attitude dripping out of those dreadlocks.

Spring Breakers is a compelling mess, one you can’t turn away from, but never not sloppy. Faith starts out as the ostensible protagonist, a religious young woman who’s so bored of her surroundings that she wants to go down to spring break if only to see something new. And even as she embraces the Girls Gone Wild-esque orgiastic lifestyle almost instantly, she becomes less important as soon as Alien arrives, a disturbing mirror image of the party atmosphere. There aren’t really character arcs in Spring Breakers, or even characters—the girls rarely acknowledge each other by name, making them oddly interchangeable, even though that seems to be a happy accident. As a vision of young women previously thought to be squeaky clean behaving badly, Spring Breakers succeeds, though it’s sometimes hard to buy.

Still from spring breakers

As outrageous as Alien is, happily brandishing guns and filled to the brim with outlandish tattoos, Franco embodies him fully. He is a product of the Millennial generation, someone who misread the 1983 remake of Scarface as the pinnacle of the modern American Dream, not its vicious, candy-colored skewering. The four young women, on the other hand, are mostly just vapid, vacuous ninnies who pretty much never realize that their actions have consequences, only shocked out of their sociopathic stupor by a jolt of reality here and there. Because the young women are so similar, the idea that Spring Breakers is a surrealistic way of warning parents what trouble their kids get into at the beach on vacation goes too far. Focusing on one of these girls could’ve hammered the argument home more; what we have only makes the argument feel empty. There’s only so many montages of drinking, smoking, and sniffing scored to a blasting, propulsive soundtrack by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex a person can take before it becomes monotonous droning.

Spring Breakers is a fascinating cinematic exercise. Though it’s got flaws aplenty, it’s almost intensely watchable, steadfastly singular. In a period when most mainstream movies are generic pablum, Spring Breakers is nothing if not different. Nowhere else will you see an actor dive so deep into a patently ridiculous yet totally charismatic character, a caricature brought to life. The pre-release story of Spring Breakers is that it features Disney Channel stars definitively shedding their childlike skins. But the real takeaway is that, for all his self-conscious quirkiness and awkwardness in big-budget action films, James Franco has not let all that talent we remember from Freaks and Geeks go to waste. Spring Breakers is a strange, psychedelic, only moderately successful experience, but too uniquely American to be ignored.

– Josh Spiegel

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By Josh Spiegel

Josh Spiegel contributes to Sound on Sight as a podcaster, its chief film critic, and editor of the Film section. (And that's just in his free time.) He started up the all-encompassing Disney film podcast Mousterpiece Cinema in June of 2011, and joined Sound on Sight officially in January of 2012. He joined the ranks of the Sound on Sight flagship podcast in early 2013. He's also a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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