by Zac Ryan
Indie provocateur Harmony Korine makes a splash with his fifth feature film, as he trades in the grumpy old men from Trash Humpers for the almost equally depraved setting of Fort Lauderdale during spring break.
As viewers are aware, thanks to MTV Spring Break weekends in the 90s, and the seedier side promoted by the Girls Gone Wild video series, spring break is a time for the highest form of debauchery. Young co-eds can let loose in the small remaining window of time before they must finally grow up, take responsibility and join the real world. The opening of Spring Breakers shows us the hedonistic nature of the yearly ritual - alcohol, drugs, awesome music and men degrading half-naked women on the beach or in the streets. To a twenty-something stuck in a small college town, this is the ultimate dream of escape and exploration.
And that's exactly where we meet the heroines of Spring Breakers. Everyone else has left the desolate town, but these four girls are strapped for cash. Three of them are wild and one-dimensional in their characterizations, the polar opposite of Faith (Selena Gomez), who half-heartedly sings or prays along with her church group. While she may not be as wild as her friends, the dull life has slowly been nagging at her, begging for her escape from the ho-hum life she leads. The problem is that the girls can't get away because of a lack of funds. So what bright idea do they have? Rob a local chicken shack to get the money they so desperately need.
The robbery is the first glimpse of many that show the girls are way out of their league. They have not grown up enough to make such life decisions, and each new choice sends them deeper into the abyss. Even before the robbery, they must pump themselves up, stating "it's just like a video game." The girls try to keep a distance between reality and fantasy, a line that the movie narrowly balances throughout the entire 93 minute run time.
Once our girls are in Fort Lauderdale, it is the picture-perfect escape they've all been needing. This is the life they want - parties, alcohol, boys, and not a worry in the world. Korine and his editor, Douglas Crise, juxtapose images of the good times among the girls with the first signs of warning from Faith, as she talks with her grandmother on the phone. The images blend into a high octane mix, supported by the soundtrack by Cliff Martinez (Drive) and Skrillex, and it all comes to a head as the girls are arrested and thrown in jail, only to be bailed out by local rapper (and drug lord) Alien (James Franco).
Once free, Alien shows our girls the other side of spring break. In case you think the regular images of drunken degradation are bad enough, there is a whole different and darker side. The girls are taken to party after party, meeting new people, but Faith feels uncomfortable in her new surroundings. She senses something bad is coming and must leave her girls behind. She is a bit of a warning shot to the audience, but her friends are too dense to hear it.
While Spring Breakers is darker than what the trailers indicate, it is Korine's most accessible film to-date. He has loaded his cast with former Disney and ABC Family alumni who would love to do anything to break the mold. It's just a shame that Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens aren't given deeper characters to play. Some of the performances come across as flat. It is Gomez who shines among the ladies, starting out as a meek girl, escaping her shell for a bit, then realizing the worst is about to happen, and making the grown-up decision to leave it all behind. Hers is the only true character arc, so it's a shame to see her so underutilized.
James Franco really steals the show. His dirty-south rapper, with grungy cornrows, tacky tattoos and a grill, might make some in the audience giggle, but like the girls, he needs to grow up and stop living a facade. Franco so easily disappears into this role, a woman behind me asked her fellow patron "who is that?" It's great to finally see Franco back at the top of his game, and honestly, I'd love to see him get some awards love for this mesmerizing performance.
Spring Breakers won't be for everyone. It's sold as a straight forward thriller in the trailers, with some recognizable cast members for the tween and early-twenties female set, but this is truly an art film getting a nice sizable release in its second weekend. It moves with the haunting looping of dialogue and warnings playing over beautiful imagery, the constant shuffling and repeat of scenes and footage, only from different points of view, and then, when you think it can't get any more bizarre, it turns into a music video for a moment, contrasting the beautiful Everyday by Britney Spears with some of the most horrific images in the movie.
For me, the film has set the bar really high for the top films of 2013. Sure it's early in the year, but right now there isn't anything close, and it could have easily cracked my top 5 in 2012. Some on Twitter have the opposite reaction. Countless tweets exclaim, "WORST MOVIE EVER!!" Many want their money back. But there's a few of us shouting that the film needs to be seen. It needs to be experienced, and it probably needs to be seen more than once, which is why I'm signing off now, and heading for a second viewing.