Dedicating much of his career to verite-style teen exposé, first-class provocateur Harmony Korine has temporarily taken a break from examining the arcane world of skateboarders and hillbilly delinquents. Stepping up from the underground and onto greener pastures, he’s set his sights on the college set, aiming to unmask the corruption and superficiality behind party culture. His finished product, Spring Breakers, is a hypnotic and kaleidoscopic journey through hell by way of beautiful, overstimulated teen flesh. It’s an exhilarating stunt that satirizes the hedonistic rite of passage that is higher education and looks on in fear at the zombies birthed by blind consumerism.
As subtle as a shotgun blast, the opening moments are the beach party cliché taken to its zenith. Naked breasts bounce in super slo-mo to blaring, repetitive house music. Drunken, beer-soaked frat boys take funnels and bellow at the camera. The fiery sun reflects off the water and sand, giving the images a blinding glow and scorched, sepia tone. It’s a sequence of sheer excess, familiarizing us with new territory and acting as a means of foreshadowing.
Our story begins on a nondescript college campus, occupied by equally archetypal teen protagonists. Three of the four girl team passively coast through class by day and smoke bongs by night, fantasizing about a consequence-free world of boys and booze on the beaches of sunny Florida. Their emotional and conversational abilities are decidedly limited, punctuated only by the occasional song lyric, expletive or sarcastically placed finger gun to forehead.
The group’s moral compass is Faith (Selena Gomez), a sensitive and spiritual Christian, who seems younger than her peers, if only because of a child-like naivety. Despite persistent warnings about temptation from bible study classmates, Faith joins the girls for their spring break adventure, ignoring the disturbing backstory that led to a recent influx of funds (armed robbery!).
With school and the local police far behind them, the dangerous foursome don bikinis like warpaint, prepping for a week of unmitigated carnality. Korine presents the high points of their vacation in rapid fire montage, creating a dizzying blur of waving arms, raised liquor bottles and ravaged hotel rooms.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end and our pretty little felons find themselves behind bars following a particularly rowdy, coke-fueled foam party. Crestfallen, they give up on the spring break fantasy, that is, until they are “rescued” by local rapper-cum-druglord, Alien (James Franco), who has bail money in hand and decidedly dicey plans for the next couple of weeks.
The enigmatic Franco brings much needed energy and intensity to the picture, kicking the narrative into high gear the moment he bursts onto the screen, menacingly flashing a smile from behind a mouth plastered with diamond grills. While his emotional piano performance of Britney Spears’ “Everytime” is a bravura surrealistic set piece, it’s the way he obsessively details his possessions that most serves Korine’s argument. Pouring over every detail of his wonderland of drugs, guns, and garb, Alien beautifully illustrates how people equate their personal value to their belongings, embodying the emptiness of all involved in the neverending party that is consumer culture.
Korine’s color palette and sound design are just as meticulously coordinated as Alien’s hat collection. Soaking each image in fuzzy pinks and yellows, he chooses colors as artificial as his characters, giving each image the sheen of a gas station Slurpee. Visuals and their accompanying sounds repeat incessantly, appearing and reappearing at random, working as mantras for the characters (“Spring Break Forever”) and forcing a dreamlike state onto the audience. The click of cocked weapons emanates endlessly, signifying a scene change and creating a sense of foreboding that briefly jars us from our trance, just in time for a burst of cataclysmic violence.
We may not share this propensity for violence or ability to dissociate from reality, but as a funhouse mirror image of American consumerism, Korine has drawn parallels between our avarice and the brutality on display in Spring Breakers. What’s most frightening about this cautionary tale isn’t the excessive partying or unprotected sex, but the lengths we’ll go to attain these things, no matter the cost.
Spring Breakers (A24 Films, 2012)
Written and Directed by Harmony Korine
Photographed by Benoît Debie