by Paul Deines
It’s been a rough summer for Hollywood, like rough to the point of putting fear into the hearts of studio execs. I’ve been disappointed by virtually every movie I’ve seen this year, and on July 4th my girlfriend and I – desperate for air-conditioning and escapism – caught one of the higher-profile bombs of the summer, White House Down. It wasn’t exactly terrible, but as we walked out I realized I needed to see a film for grownups.
So, this week I accessed my cable’s VOD section for one of the big surprise hits of 2013: Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. I wrote about Korine in April, about his role as a provocateur in the extreme film movement. His great theme is the moral bankruptcy of down-market America, which he’s explored in films like Kids, Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy. He’s inspired some hilariously scathing critiques and given some of Letterman’s funniest interviews.
Spring Breakers is by far Korine’s most commercially successful film (that’s right: more successful than Trash Humpers), owing largely to its titillating subject matter and pretty performers, including Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. These young ladies (with Ashley Benson and Korine’s wife Rachel) play dissolute college students, who rob a diner with plastic guns to finance their trip to St. Petersburg for the drinking, humping, and property destruction of sprayng brayk (the words are repeated countless times but never properly enunciated). Eventually, they run afoul of a two-bit-hustler-cum-rap-impresario called Alien, who is played by James Franco and looks like this:
I’ll say it: give Franco all the Oscars. His Alien a amazing gonzo creation who transitions the film from Real Cancun territory to Herzog-land, with chorine-soaked sex, pistol fellating, hot pink sky masks, and a turf war with Gucci Mane.
Alien also reveals the danger that underpins all the drugs these girls have enjoyed. One agonizing scene involves Gomez trying to explain to Franco why she’s uncomfortable in a rundown black pool hall. As glowering black men look on, she begs to go home and Franco prods her to explain why. The racial dynamic is tense and transgressive, and its resolution is both surprising and unsettling.
What’s impressive is how easily this all goes down. Korine, as always, goes for alienation, but Spring Breakers is all sexy naifs, nattily picturesque beaches and catchy driving beats (music is by Skrillex?). Even as we watch the new Roman Empire crumble into a pile of plastic yard-glasses, dollar store beads, and discarded bikini tops, we aren’t physically revolted by the characters. There’s no bacon and filthy bathwater in this one. Rather, the narrative exists in a fugue state, full of repeated monologue and leaps in time like a Terence Malick film. We revisit pivotal scenes like the diner robbery from different vantages. There’s a hilariously warped montage of mayhem set to James Franco’s crooning “Everytime” by Britney Spears.
This giddy, spacey tone infinitely enhances Korine’s lazy script. Easy and oft-mentioned example: what’s Selena Gomez’s born-again character name? That’s right: Faith. But at least she has recognizable human attributes. Benson and Hudgens’ characters are barely distinguishable. Rachel Korine stands apart only because of her pink hair. But Gomez conveys equal parts wonder, guilt, and paralyzed fear, all with an easy openness I found deeply affecting, and her comrades may be underwritten, but they are given a heedless, terrifying life by the actresses.
And Korine – whose career has existed resolutely in the gutter – does not condescend his subjects, whose limited life experience is key to the film’s success. Over and over, the girls say, “it’s more than just having a good time,” as though trashing hotel rooms and drinking in a pool is a spiritual experience, but we never hate them for this vacuity.
So … Harmony Korine, it turns out, is a fantastic director. He is so desperate to offend the bourgeoisie, with his bludgeoning video art aesthetic and often unbearable dialogue. Spring Breakers proves that he can frame a scene, elicit, and draw unexpected work from actors. I never did a beer-bong in Florida, but watching this ragged, raging coterie, I understand something about myself at that age (not so long ago). Perhaps we’re all willing to destroy a few lives in the search for our true selves.