Stars: James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine
Genre: Crime, Black Comedy
(Note: There's some minor spoilers within, but nothing too big and nothing you probably haven't already seen from the trailers)
Harmony Korine's latest film is a piece of pop art absurdity that will surely leave you with a few different feelings by the time the credits role.
The film concerns four college girls who desperately want to go to Florida for spring break but lack the funds. In order to raise the money for the trip they rob a restaurant. However, during their Florida spring break they meet a local gangster by the name of Alien who takes their lives in a new direction.
The film's plot is fairly thin and simple but that's definitely not the selling point of this film, of which I'll get to presently. This film had a lot of festival hype and received a lot of attention due to its casting of Disney stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. But it'd be wrong to look at this film strictly in turns of its radical casting. There's more to it.
The beginning of the film is mostly just these four college girls hanging out and having fun, and then progressing to some wild spring break partying; booties shaking, alcohol flowing, you know how it goes. But despite this seemingly normal, lighthearted atmosphere the film always lets you know that there is something very dark beneath the surface. Anytime you get too comfortable there will surely be a loud sound of a gun being loaded on the scene's transition. This sound effect repeated throughout the film prevents you from ever getting comfortable and will indeed probably even startle you. Along with this there are brief glimpses of horror early on in the form of "micro scenes," as the director calls them. The robbery of the restaurant is terrifying and Candy's (Hudgens) retelling of it to Faith, whom wasn't there during the robbery, is even more frightening.
In the second half of the film, with the introduction of Franco's character Alien, the girls' hedonism leads them to a world of crime and only crime. It turns the film into a sort of "Beach Noir," as the director calls it.
What this film does well is that it doesn't glorify the lifestyle of partying teens but it also doesn't condemn it. It feels more like it's just displaying it. It's holding up a mirror to American youth and forcing them to see themselves. To see the drunken behavior and reckless partying. But in the end the viewer will interpret it how they want. Someone who loves partying and does it often will watch this and relate to the party setting and those who generally dislike dumb teenagers will feel disgust. Either way is fine; either way works for the film.
I do think the film has satirical elements though. One cannot look at footage of young girls shaking their asses and having alcohol poured on them with a Selena Gomez voice over of her saying how spiritual it all is and not sense the satire. Or seeing Alien as a manifestation of the "gangsta" image. The girls wear pink ski masks with unicorn patches; they took something that was intended to conceal their identity while committing criminal activities and they still managed to turn it into a matter of appearance. It's showing us America's pop culture with no holds barred. It's forcing us to see what much of this country's youth is.
Alien is not a gangster in the true sense of the word. He is someone who is so obsessed with his image and with material things. He just wants the appearance and everything he does is to build and maintain this appearance he strived for. The first time we see in Alien's house the entire scene is spent with him pointing out all of the things he owns, from guns to cologne. I think that also works into the idea of spring break and youth, and I suppose the film can be looked at as a comment on hedonism and materialism in general. Our culture is very artificial, materialistic and, as Harmony himself has said, deals largely only with the surface of things.
There's some really great camerawork here, and at points it utilizes a kind of Girls Gone Wild or MTV's Spring Break shooting style. It's effective in that not only does it support a satirical nature but it also forces further comparisons between real life and the things we constantly see in our culture. There's also some very beautiful and stylistic use of lighting, with a constant sense of neon and plasticity, not only supporting the film's themes but looking stunning in the process. I must also complement the film's editing, with great use of gun sounds on transition as I mentioned before (and indeed all the sound in here sounds great, reminiscent of the great sounds recorded in Julien Donkey-Boy) and also great use of repetition and voice overs, etc.
The entire film has such a dream-like atmosphere. Not only due to its neon lighting and its atmospheric editing and its such vibrant use of color (Korine said he wanted certain parts of the film to look like Skittles) but also due to its constant absurdity. But its absurdity is never completely unbelievable; it takes things that surely do happen in real life and shows us that these things are absurd but that doesn't make them not real. Life is absurd; our culture is absurd; now watch it. It's a crazy story grounded in dream-like reality. It's impressionistic.
The casting was a very smart move. Not only does the casting of big names bring immediate attention to the film but also the radical defiance of typecasting (in regards to Gomez and Hudgens) sparked controversy. But we should also realize that Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens are indeed the type of people they are playing. They are a part of the pop culture that the film is displaying. They are literally perfect for the role. As far as their performances go, and indeed the performances of all four girls, it is suffice. Their characters are written to be flat and lacking depth so they do fine within the room the role allows. They're hard characters to sympathize with, at least for me, but that's really not the point. The film, again, is not trying to get you to root for or against anything, it's just showing it to you.
The one who really stole the show as far as performances go is James Franco as Alien. Easily one of the best and most interesting parts of his career. His character is so ridiculous (yet eerily believable) that it is just awe-inspiring to observe. I was honestly taken aback and just amazed at this character. It really is, at least to me who isn't usually around these types of people, like watching someone from a different planet. And Franco plays the role great. I think it helps to be a Franco fan prior to this, just because I found it much more funnier to see an actor I love play such a hilarious part. And it is hilarious. James Franco playing (and singing) a Britney Spears song on a piano and then it serving as the background music for a robbery montage is genius but above all hilarious.
Whether you laugh at its absurdity, cringe at its horror, or relish in its stylistic beauty, Spring Breakers is an interesting film and an undoubtedly well crafted one. It's unbiased, unpretentious, and it captures an odd dream-like yet realistic feeling. Harmony Korine sucked unsuspecting people into theaters with the allure of a Hollywood cast, sexy promotion and a mainstream soundtrack and then he showed them something they weren't expecting. This "pop poem" is definitely a worthy entry into Harmony's intriguing filmography.