(3/15/13; Satire, Comedy, Drama)
James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine
SCR/DIR: Harmony Korine
MPAA: R for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use, and violence throughout
1 hour 33 mins
(A24, Annapurna Pictures)

The most fascinating thing about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is how people react to it. Audiences and critics find themselves equally seduced and repelled, so in order to put it into some context, they intellectualize the experience by over-thinking their reaction to it. Savvier moviegoers know they are being played, but the continued onslaught of debaucherous imagery run against the grain of what an enlightened society is allowed to accept. So we have to debate it, right? The movie has the last laugh, and knows it.

College girls Faith, Candy, Brit, and Cotty yearn to break from their boring lives but don’t have enough money for a road trip to Florida for Spring Break. So three of them rob a small restaurant (“No fear. Just imagine it’s a videogame.”) and are on their way. When wild parties lead to an arrest, the gals are bailed out by a local thug named Alien (James Franco), who introduces them to a different way of life.

Each is introduced in a way to invite a stereotypical response, the “need to escape” blondes all blending together at first, the only standout being Selena Gomez’s brunette Christian girl (Faith, natch). But before it’s all said and done, not only does each one become the star of their own show, but reveals depths only hinted at earlier. That is not to say that each character is redeemed. As shocking as it is that Franco’s posturing gangsta is revealed to be a closet romantic, so are the paths of some of the gals.

Yes, it’s shocking, if you’re still frightened by the human body and all the things it can accomplish in the name of fun. But the movie also argues against convention. When our four nubile heroines venture from their boring small town to the sun-bleached, neon-colored world of reckless abandon, it is no less of a structured convention then the long, boring college and bible studies they yearn to escape from.

It’s a wicked streak of brilliance that Korine chose to make the youth pastor as gangsta as Franco’s outrageous rapper-poser. Both act as guides to a better place, a more enlightened state of mind, one in the name of Jesus, the other in the name of living in the moment. But both are a sham, perpetrated by someone who needs to believe their own bullshit in order to have a purpose.

While Spring Breakers only dabbles in tweaking the nose of the religious right, the movie’s main intent is to hold a funhouse mirror up to a youth culture steeped in gangsta posturing. When I owned a video store, there were a handful of movies that always got rented: they were the edgy flicks filled with WTF moments that pushed the lines of pop culture out even further: Faces of Death, The Toxic Avenger, Korine’s own Kids, Scarface.

So it’s no accident that right in the middle of Franco’s instant classic “Look at my shit” monologue, that he claims he has “Scarface. On repeat!” Korine not only created a movie that has enough sex, drugs, and violence to earn a spot on that cinematic wall of shame, he features a gloriously delusional character that got that way from watching these films.

To recap: Spring Breakers is watching you watch it, and laughing at you.

At one point, Rachel Korine’s Cotty (actually Harmony’s wife) writhes around drunk and topless at the end of a long night surrounded by party sharks and announces they can look but not touch. Similarly, the movie keeps its audience an arm’s length away from the hedonism, instead inviting us to look into the eyes of its characters. But don’t look for enlightenment unless you happen to agree that Britney Spears is the poet of our time.

Many critics have seized upon Vanessa Hutchens’ Candy making finger guns early on as foreshadowing to her eventually violent path. Korine also uses fetishistic gun imagery as character development: guns squirt alcohol, adorn walls as decor, and in the film’s most twisted and disturbing moment, represent an instrument of sexuality. It’s almost as if Korine is daring the MPAA and it’s ratings board to answer why it’s more permissible to show somebody performing fellatio on a loaded weapon rather than a human being?

Welcome to America, kids.

None of this would work if the film wasn’t awesome. Let’s face it. Korine’s resume is littered with low-budget raunch with titles like Trash Humpers. There has always been an element of subversion and commentary to his work, but who was ever going to see it? Casting famous actresses largely associated with family fare with a masterstroke. Photographing them with celebrated cinematographer BenoĆ®t Debie was another.

Spring Breakers, like all great works of art, contains just enough to start the conversation. The rest of it is up to us, to accept, to reject, to debate. I can’t remember the last time a press screening turned into an occasion for people to stand around afterward, debating what they had just seen.

Yes, this film is that good. But you get out of it what you bring to it. Looking for a crazy movie to make your white boy ass feel like a ruthless gangsta thug? Look no further. Looking for a cautionary tale that warns us about the dangers of choosing complete abandon over spirituality? Check. But if you just want to fold your arms and dismiss Spring Breakers as wanting to have it both ways because — what kind of a decent person would you be if you actually approved of a movie like this? — that’s okay too.

Spring Breakers is an intoxicating cocktail of dangerous stereotypes, cinematic tropes, and biting social commentary about an American culture programmed to get more out of a visceral reaction than a real experience. But it also asks what happens when it’s time to go home? What is more numbing? The existence or the escape? Not since Fight Club has a movie so brazenly screamed that it was time to wake the fuck up.

Spring break forever, bitches.



Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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