Review: Spring Breakers (2013)

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Directed by – Harmony Korine
Written by – Harmony Korine
Starring – James Franco, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Vanessa Hudgens & Selena Gomez

And the award for most surprising film of the year goes to…

Ok, so here’s the thing; I went into Spring Breakers with a bit of a closed mind. I fully expected it to be sexist, trashy and just a little bit nasty. I expected it to be the definition of style-over-substance, in which flashy visuals and irritating directorial quirks would take precedence over any semblance of characterisation or a story, and I expected to come to you today with a scathing, hate-filled review in which I decried the miserable depths to which the film industry has fallen and demanded everybody involved never worked again.

Well… Spring Breakers is sexist, trashy and a little bit nasty. It’s over-indulgent, painstakingly stylish and oh-so-quirky. It lacks a tight story, and the characterisation sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. Yet somehow, this anarchic combination of issues comes together to give the audience a glorious exploration of youth culture, the shallow banality of the American Dream and Generation Y’s apparent lack of morality. Directed and written by Harmony Korine (Gummo, Trash Humpers), the film plays out like a hedonistic trip, a lucid dream in which all is possible yet one that is distinctly nightmarish; a false, fractured, orgy of sex, drugs and debauchery, in which each character represents a trait of the new generation in all of its vain, nasty, unfulfilled glory.

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The plot of the film is quite simple, though what it represents is much more interesting. Four girls – Faith (Gomez; Aftershock, Getaway), Brit (Benson; Bring it On: In It To Win It, 13 Going On 30), Candy (Hudgens; High School Musical, Sucker Punch) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) decide to go to Spring Break in Florida. In order to fund the vacation, Brit, Candy and Cotty commit armed robbery on a local restaurant and the four of them then depart to indulge in a copious amount of sex, narcotics and criminality. Alas, the four girls soon find themselves arrested after being caught taking cocaine at a party. When a strange rapper-cum-gangster called Alien (Franco; Spider-Man, This is the End) bails them out, the girls get caught up in a dangerous World, where the dangers match the glory. One-by-one, each girl must choose whether she wants to stick with Alien and reap the material benefits of his lifestyle or escape to the banality (but safety) of the lives they used to lead.

Near the start of the film, one of the characters says “imagine you’re in a video game”, which sets the tone for what is to come over the next 90 minutes. This isn’t a narrative film so much as it is a metaphor for the commercialisation of youth culture. It is a film in which absolutely everything is a fraud. The colours, the lights, the locales – none of it is real, it’s all just there to satisfy cheap desires of both the characters and the audience. The film is repetitious and meandering, like one of those awful dreams from which you can’t escape; or, perhaps more accurately, one from which you don’t want to escape. No matter how false, cheap or shallow the film gets, it remains mesmerising. Like the lives that its characters seek, the film acts like a drug; it’s so easy to get suckered in, so simple to just accept your lot and join in the hedonism, that you too become caught up in the chaos of the thing.

Above all else, however, the film forces you to ask yourself who you are; are you Faith, the one who wants to have fun but ultimately knows when enough is enough, or are you Candy, the one for whom this lifestyle is what you’ve always secretly wanted? Or maybe you’re Alien, the one who is clinging so desperately to the pleasures of your youth that you no longer know how to live a normal life? Though each of the characters, with the exception of Alien, is little more than a caricature of a trait (Faith, for example, is exactly what she says on the tin, though not just in the religious sense, while Candy is the sweet, addictive one who ultimately turns out to be bad for you), they each represent something about contemporary America and the manner in which the beauty of youth is being poisoned by the extravagances of a materialistic society.

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I think another important point to make here is that the casting is absolutely spot-on. Sure, there’s a hint of “hired for their looks” about the decisions, but is that not part of the point? All four girls give great performances, not least because they because they show a real determination to shed their image as “nice” girls. That, in part, is why the casting is so superb; this is a film about the eradication of youth, the sexualisation and amorality of Generation Y and how false modern existence can be. The sexualisation of these “sweet” and “innocent” stars that this film offers is therefore the perfect tool for what it is that Korine wants to say. Similarly, the casting of James Franco is absolutely inspired. Franco gives a sensational, unrecognisable performance that is so against type, it’s hard to believe it even is Franco. If there were any justice, Franco would be an Oscar-contender for his turn here. He turns the life of Alien into a modern-day tragedy; he’s isn’t a hero, an anti-hero nor a villain, he’s just a very conflicted man. Though he’s a criminal, Alien represents nostalgia and an inability to let go of the past; something we can all relate to and Franco – whose performance in This is the End was similarly broken, albeit to greater comic effect – plays it brilliantly.

For me Spring Breakers is one of the biggest surprises of the year. Korine’s style still leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth at times, and his views on life are perhaps a bit immature and childish. Nevertheless, I found meaning in a lot of what his film had to say and though there is a debate to be had about the film’s over-sexualised approach to women, I don’t think it is of much detriment to the overall package.

★★★★

Review also posted on Letterboxd

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