Spring Breakers

When, in a recent Facebook post, I accidentally implied Spring Breakers was my favorite film of the year, someone deadpanned back “Please don’t tell me your favorite movie of the year was Spring Breakers…” And it is not. In the days since Spring Breakers was released on DVD and Blu-Ray, I’ve seen a lot of like-minded hate for the movie among friends who had to see what it was about – I mean, this basically looks like someone managed to get three Disney-affiliated teen actresses and James Franco to act in a mainstream Girls Gone Wild film, so I can’t blame them since I had to as well – and have immediately regretted they’re curiosity. I haven’t immediately regretted my curiosity, but I’m with them in this: I’m not sure what I just saw. Now that everyone can get their hands on the film, some of the luster and mystery the film’s concept and praise invited are gone. In their place: “This is what everyone was talking about?”

Spring Breakers, if we could wither it down to its bare essence (and it could have used a bit more withering down to some sort of bare essence), is a film about getting good-girl Gabriella Montez from the High School Musical films into bed (or, as the case may be here, into a poolside threesome) with a dreadlocked Harry Osborne and turning this into a self-actualizing moment. That turns out to be both as captivating and as uninviting as it sounds.

It is captivating, in fits and starts, because it allows us some level of voyeurism, watching two once-teen stars behave badly and wonder how much of it is really an act; we can’t help but show up for the train crash, if that is in fact what we are going to get.

It is altogether uninviting because it does reveal (or revel in our expectations, since this is, we must remind ourselves, a fiction) how far they’ve come. And in seeing how far they’ve come, we might feel a bit of how far we’ve come. (How far we’ve fallen? How far they’ve fallen? Spring Breakers doesn’t seem to think so. The film seems initially to praise Gomez’s character for leaving the party when it gets crazy, as any sane person might do, but ultimately I’m pretty sure it sides with the girls who are, let’s be frank, out of their ever-loving minds. Those who sin the most seem to fall upwards into a state of blissful transcendence in Spring Breakers, which… okay?) There’s a very innocence lost, kicked out of Eden feel to this film, with St. Petersburg, Florida subbing in for some kind of purgatory which allows some to ascend to a higher plane and sends others to another place altogether. .

But director Harmony Korine makes you work to get there, if you manage to get there at all (I have the distinct feeling that I’ve got a bead on what this film might be trying to say, while simultaneously feeling like I’ve misunderstood everything about it on a deeply fundamental level.) Those who know Korine’s past work weren’t surprised; Korine is apparently not a very user-friendly director. Watching Spring Breakers, you’ll find it hard to believe that this is by far his most mainstream film. This isn’t a quick shot of hedonism rimmed with a sprinkle of sweetness making it easier to process, internalize, and get past quickly. In Spring Break parlance, this isn’t a drink you take and move on from. It will not go down smooth. This is a shot of tequila served in a jagged, neon glass. It will burn going down. The pleasure you take in that experience may vary.

This isn’t Road Trip. So don’t expect it to be. This isn’t American Pie. This isn’t The Hangover. There’s no throughline of family or brotherhood. (If there’s a message of sisterhood, you’ll have to turn your head to the side and squint to see it.) There’s no sweet reconciliation at the end. Spring Breakers is completely uninterested in those cathartic trap doors that give an audience permission to leave a dirty, grimy sex romp with a spring in their step. There is no cheap catharsis – nothing in this film comes cheap, not plot, not character development, not nothing. There will be scenes of topless beachside frolicking, but you’re going to have to eat your cinematic vegetables to get any sort of kick out of them.

Those vegetables come in the form of non-sequential storytelling, repetitive and pensive voiceover that frequently does not match with what we see on the screen, and strange, often affectless performance from the leads. Essentially, we now know what it would look like if Terrence Malick had directed Eurotrip – the strung-out hedonism stuck on a loop, the Red Solo Cup life-altering revelations framed as whispered prayers. It is unique and unforgettable and distinctly not a fun time on a Saturday night.

I’m not sure I’m a fan of what Korine does here, as you can see, but I didn’t get sent away from his rager on a charter bus back to squaresville for the reason I thought I would be. Look, I’ve been called a prude more than once in my life. I find the insinuation insulting, but it’s based on some truth. Those that know me will think I find myself distanced from this film because of its drugs and guns and embrace of the nude female form. If I had guessed anything would push me away, I would have expected the same. So they will be as surprised as I am that some of my favorite scenes in the movie are also its most perverse. One sequence in particular, which features James Franco performing a sexual act on a loaded pistol, is its own miniature masterpiece, the purest expression of this film’s kinky relationship with violence.

You know why it works? It is allowed to be a scene. It has a beginning, a middle, an end, some tension, some release. Korine’s montage story-telling delivers some stunning neon-tinged visuals and some deep strung-together resonances, but the method is not kind to the story or the actors. This film isn’t montage heavy. It is a montage. Which makes it difficult to follow. But not impossible. Actually, we see this type of storytelling all the time. We’re just not used to paying ten dollars for the privilege.

I have become a lot more sympathetic to this film since I have stopped thinking about it as I expected it to be – a rollicking party of a movie that would embody the Spring Break experience by having everyone in the theater rows standing up and dancing along, nnntsuh, nnntsuh – and started thinking of it as a feature length music video. Basically, what we get here is an alternate version of the crazy-pants video for Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” that is ten times longer and ten times more thoughtful. Watch the film with the same eye you might watch a new music video from Rihanna or Nicki Minaj, who release a new short film about parties and violence set to popular music every other month or so, and what Korine does makes a little more sense. His cuts back and forth between intense moments of realization and meaningless filler shots of partying extras; his out-of-sequence story-telling where we see a gunshot wound and then see how it is acquired a moment later; and especially his repeated lines of dialogue that act as this film’s repeated choruses, intros, and outros; these are all familiar to us from music video culture. And this isn’t a bad music video. I think it’s a transcendent music video. But it struggles to be a movie.

Maybe it would work better in that vain if it made more of the four female characters who are its ostensible leads – the film seems more than happy to leave them as cyphers. It is not our job to get invested in them; when one of them decides to leave Florida, we do not follow her back. We never see her again. It is almost as if she hasn’t decided to return home but has died instead. And in the film’s eyes, she has. This film’s main character, its focus, its altar, is Florida, not Hudgens or Gomez. Speaking on behalf of fellow Floridians, I’m not sure what Gomez’s character Faith finds so transcendent about a weekend in St. Petersburg (whatever it is, could she point me to it?), but the film seems hell-bent on convincing me it’s there.

Spring Breakers cares what the state of Florida (or the idea of it) does to the girls, not so much what they to do it. Since they commit acts of violence, it seems like they have agency, but that agency is only revealed occasionally, and that’s troubling. This impression isn’t helped at all by the casting of Disney starlets. Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens seem ill-equipped for this mode of storytelling, which asks them, in repeating lines over and over again while off-screen, to say them with different intonations, giving them different meanings through imperceptible changes in tone and timbre. Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life can pull that off. The Wizard of Waverly Place, not so much. And that’s not meant to be an insult to Gomez, whom I adored on that show in spite of its incredibly terrible writing. Gomez is a gifted comedienne, and Corrine misuses her as this film’s sweet, religious innocent. Recall that in their Disney star pasts, Gomez was gifted at playing sassy and mature and Hudgens was type-cast as sweet and innocent. Flipping their roles here may be indicative of where their careers are now (Hudgens, far from the mainstream spotlight, has less to lose going nude and going cuckoo, while Gomez, very much an on-the-rise commodity, may want to shed her child star moors but can’t shed them too much), but it traps the actresses far from their comfort zones – and far from where we’re comfortable seeing them. I envy them taking on the challenge, but if this is a music video, they sing the wrong verses.

This all resolves itself when James Franco shows up and gives his best performance in years. (Someone reading this right now just shuddered, but it’s true. Franco, who fancies himself a stoned renaissance man and changer-of-minds never comes off that way onscreen, always playing a chill dude who takes the punches as they come. It’s nice to see him making some waves onscreen as well as off it.) Spring Breakers may be a song about empowering the girls that stay in Florida to the very bitter end, stick it out and finish their spiritual journey, but Franco’s the one singing that song (embodied brilliantly by the Brittany Spears sing-along he leads in another stand-out scene.)

This is the ballad of Alien and his smoking hot, gun-toting posse. (“Four little chickies came down to da beach. Four little chickies got out of my reach. One little chickie got shot in the arm. That little chickie went back to the farm.”) Franco plays the Devil asking these girls to sell their souls for a little fun and a lot of money. This doesn’t make the girl’s stories very interesting because, aside from Faith, it’s hard to see that they had souls to begin with. Alien doesn’t do much to accelerate the process. But he sure is fun to watch as he tries.

Franco, more than anyone else in the cast, seems to get what’s going on here. Or maybe he doesn’t get it at all, and that’s why I like his performance all the more. When he’s on screen, embodying his role as a southern rapper who claims to be from another planet but also wants to claim all the material wealth he can on this planet, he makes the movie suit his rhythm, not the other way around. He builds a fully realized character in a film otherwise populated by vague sketches of violent, liberating female sexuality. The character he embodies may be insane and easy to make fun of, but at least he is engaging and psychologically complex and, in spite of all his grand pronouncements about greed and being bad, relatable. As the film’s last ten minutes make clear, Alien does feel fear. He is from this planet. He is a mortal man. His little chickies, on the other hand, maybe not. They will baffle me for a little longer. How am I supposed to feel about their actions? Am I intended to feel pride that they seem to have found themselves by behaving badly in my backyard? These questions will stick with me, and I don’t begrudge the film for making me ask them. I won’t soon forget this film’s depiction of Spring Break (forevaahhh!). I won’t soon understand it either.