What is most interesting about Harmony Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS is the way it turns its imagery on its head while revealing harsh truths about the hollowness of American pop culture. Though the camera revels in shots of decadent excess, it never quite reduces them to mere cheap exploitation. Instead, by the end of this anti-fairy tale, they are emblematic of a pervasive darkness in the American soul, and while they are precisely the same images of the eponymous college ritual on Florida beaches, the titillating qualities now seem ominous rather than prurient. It’s a brilliant manipulation, in the best possible sense, of the audience by Mr. Korine, who spares that audience neither the attraction of anything novel and dangerous, nor the consequences of surrendering to that attraction and extrapolating it to a not unreasonable extreme.
He begins with boredom, which will become the true villain of the piece. This is the boredom of daily life in a small college town, and partying to excess the only release for three college co-eds (Vanessa Hudgins, Rachel Korine, and Ashley Benson). Even the religious Faith (Selena Gomez) is more afflicted by boredom than she realizes, turning to an in-your-face, heavy-metal form of Christianity to relieve the monotony. They dream of Spring Break, the sunshine, the abandonment of routine, the over-stimulation of controlled substances, legal and not, and the exhilaration of eager boys with raging hormones to be toyed with and discarded. The force is overwhelming even if lack of funds makes it impossible. In the first of many steps on the slippery slope to ruin, a robbery is executed, money is abundant, and the four hit the road in search of a good time.
There is a comparative innocence to the orgies of adolescents in motel rooms when compared to the next step in the ladies corruption. That would be Al (James Franco), a full-time partier and good-time gangster who represents danger at its most exotic. Corn-rowed, with a grill and an equally righteous exuberance for both his automatic weapons and his cologne, he proves irresistible to three of them, pulling them further down the rabbit hole of nihilistic excess that never quite satisfies. Rather it demands more without ever being enough.
Visually, Korine uses the style of disjointed adolescent mind that is not thinking clearly, able to focus only on the past and the putative future, never fully on the present beyond a fragment of a face or hint of a bottle. Fun is not the point. Future fun is, and any distraction that is not familiar and that has the added luster of being forbidden. There is a sly mirroring of the playful excess of spring break, and the empty excesses of strip clubs and gangster lairs where the same activities, plus guns, takes place but with a pervasive sense of ennui. The joy replaced with zero-sum power plays where the point is posturing, not partying.
Playing characters without introspection or an inner life on which to draw might be a problem for some actors, but not for the ones here. Former Disney-kid Gomez in particular has a touching gravity even before Faith’s fear reflex kicks in, and Hudgens, another former Disney kid, is profoundly unsettling as an empty shell willing to try anything before deciding that being good might be the most radical choice of all. It’s Franco, though, who best encapsulates the film itself. Play-acting at being dangerous, he actually is, accepting without question what the media has glamorized as the American Dream without considering anything else. It’s like when the co-eds raid the diner they rob, telling each other to pretend they are playing a video game.
Korine ends SRPING BREAKERS with an image that should become iconic for its fascination and horror in equal measure. Women not old enough to drink, clad in the briefest of day-glo bikinis and pink unicorn ski masks, storming a drug lord’s enclave with automatic weapons spitting fire. It’s not the wages of sin we need to worry about, it’s bored co-eds desperate to feel alive.