One moment in Spring Breakers is as tense a scene as I'm likely to see this year, and representative of the surprising depth for a film camouflaged as titillating. Three college girls, bored with the idea of sitting around getting stoned on campus while everyone is away having the party of their lives, decide to rob a local chicken joint. While two are on the inside threatening the patrons the camera sits patiently with the third, listening to overproduced pop on the radio, going around the restaurant as primary colors flood the screen and end with a deep red.
They are circling the drain, comforting themselves with empty songs and delusional wishes to live forever, when the result is always the same. These kids are going to die no matter how much fun they have but still may find something worthwhile about themselves in the process. Maybe not. Spring Breakers is about finding that realization in the realm that Jerry Springer used to traffic in, that event of booze that sees all the pent-up energy and frustration of the winter blown in yearly rhythm.
Harmony Korine managed to find a wealth of empathy around an event where I wasn't sure anyone involved deserved any. Spring break always seemed like a void that existed on MTV. In Korine's hands it's a fatally beautiful cycle of the people who are going to realize very soon that they're damned.
As a fair disclaimer: this is not a very pleasant movie to watch. Despite the bikini-clad bodies displayed on the cover I'd feel very bad for the person who rents this expecting to be titillated (and even worse for the one who is when the credits roll). Korine's film moves in a haze with dialogue that seems half-remembered through memories clouded with booze and drugs. His camera follows suit, mixing images of consequences for actions not even taken but hinted at with every beer, bong hit, and, eventually, gun displayed. He trades in normal film stock for a grain more suited to exploitation films at one point when the pleasure spread through everyone.
The the party rages on. Korine set's the tone by presenting a montage of partiers slowly becoming unraveled as dubstep blares on. Dubstep is the go to music these days for trailers because of how well it can go from quietly laying a foundation of music to blowing it all to hell. This is perfect for the denizens of the beach looking to see how far they can push their bodies with each other without blinking out. It's a party that rages forever, all that's needed is a calm, and maybe a popsicle, to blast on to the next display of decadent exhibition.
The effect is at once disarming and inviting the audience to feel nostalgic for something that they may have never even liked. No matter how gritty or dangerous the surroundings seem there is always a sense of affection from Korine. Given his approach I shouldn't be surprised when the damned come together to stroke their guns, drink, and sing Brittney Spears. But she's a fitting icon for that weird, beautiful moment.
Korine, for all his immense skill as a director, falters a bit when it comes to the plot and dialogue. It's a bit of too clever staging to have Selena Gomez, highly publicized as shaking her Disney cutesy princess image, playing a girl named Faith whose spirituality gives her an early warning sign for the trouble she and her friends are about to get into. Harmony's wife, Rachel Korine, also appears in the movie but even if threatened with extreme bodily harm I could not tell what she did. Finally some of the dialogue is really clunky. When the girls are hanging around a dangerous gangster named Alien, who took a shine to them after a spat with the police, we don't really need a long stint of Alien talking about how the ocean is beautiful but be careful because sharks are just under the surface.
Thankfully, James Franco plays Alien in a performance that deserves nomination for any award that will have him (and if they won't, need to strongly reconsider their admittance policy). He plays Alien as a full-on believer of the death wish, joyously pushing the girls out of their comfort zone with a practiced theatricality designed to see who will give him what he wants. Franco has one exquisite moment where he let's the façade slip and he let's on just how much of a show he's putting on for the girls, where the gangster mannerisms slide and the twang of an angry country boy is heard just for a moment. Even at his level it's possible for him to sink deeper.
His match is the paired terror played by Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson. It's hinted early on that they are the ones that are ready to most embrace the depths that gleeful depravity will allow but I was shocked at how effective they are. Without mincing words, they play a hellacious duo so threatening that I was frightened at one point. They follow Alien down to his level and go even further, becoming the microcosm of Korine's world of beautiful death and twisting gender norms to their sadistic pleasure.
But what beautiful death they bring. Their yellow uniforms shine bright against a neon pink road to hell with the echoes of "Spring break forever" echo in many voices. This is Korine's love letter to the damned. May they party forever.