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Monday, August 19, 2013

Review: Spring Breakers (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Harmony Korine
Starring: Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, James Franco, Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine

Full disclosure: I'm actually still undecided about whether Spring Breakers is trash or brilliant. On one hand, the sheer number of naked breasts on display throughout leads me to believe that this is an exploitation film. On the other hand, there's enough evidence that the story is a critique of white privilege and cultural tourism that I find it difficult not to take it seriously. In the end, Spring Breakers may be the rare film that manages to successfully have it both ways, denouncing the very things it wallows in and profits from. If nothing else, Spring Breakers should be credited with the best montage set to a Britney Spears song ever committed to film.

Spring Breakers is thin on plot. Basically, it's about four college friends - Brittany (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Faith (Selena Gomez) - who have spent the school year dreaming of, and saving up for, a spring break trip to Florida. When they realize that they don't have quite enough money, Brittany, Candy and Cotty decide to rob a local restaurant and afterwards the four set off to experience the debauched rite of passage. They end up getting arrested and then bailed out of jail by rapper/gangster/ridiculous human being Alien (James Franco), whose antics send Faith and later Cotty running for home, but who remains a source of intrigue for thrill seeking Brittany and Candy, who have taken up residence in his home and agree to help him get revenge on his gangland rival. That's it, really, the action periodically broken up by hard partying and gunfire, and voice overs from the four girls which describe spring break as a form of paradise few will ever know.

With its glossy, color drenched photography, reverent indulgence in frequent slow motion, and reliance on music to convey emotion during the major plot movements, Spring Breakers looks more like a music video than a film, particularly during the stretches when it establishes the hedonistic atmosphere of spring break. At first blush, these sequences seem shamelessly gratuitous, with frame after frame of women in various states of undress jiggling for the camera as if it's a Girls Gone Wild production, but they also help establish the film's overarching theme. Aside from being nearly naked, the extras are also predominantly white, a mass of college kids who have felt entitled to descend on this beach town, soaking it in drugs and booze, covering it in bodily fluid, destroying it with their partying, and then leaving the locals to clean up the mess. For our four heroes, it is heaven (one of the funniest things about Spring Breakers is how awed the protagonists sound when describing the spring break experience in voice over - maybe it's because I'm 30, but to me it looked more like an obnoxious hellscape than a dream place where people can go to "find themselves") until, suddenly, it is not. Faith is the first to go, explaining to the others than she feels uncomfortable once they fall into Alien's orbit. What Faith experiences around Alien isn't actually very different from what they were experiencing before except for one thing: before Faith and company were partying with other college kids, almost all of whom are white (there are a couple of black female extras in those scenes, I don't recall seeing any black male extras), now Alien has brought them to party with "his people," predominantly black and male. The party is essentially the same, it's the partiers who have changed, and that's what sends Faith running.

Cotty goes next, sadly declaring that "spring break is over" after getting caught in the crossfire of a war Alien has started with his former mentor, Big Arch (Gucci Mane), who resents the fact that Alien has started dealing drugs in his territory. That the girls always have the option to call it quits and go home reinforces the film's critique of their positions of privilege. They can play at being bad, they can dip their toes into life on "the other side," but when things get too real, they always have the option of getting away, an option that people living every day on the other side do not have. They can ride roughshod over other people's lives and call it a day whenever they want, declare the party over and go home. While a literal reading of the film's finale makes no damn sense, metaphorically it works perfectly: the privileged will always walk away unscathed because that privilege acts like a shield, and those who stand in their way will be crushed beneath their heels because they have less and, thus, "matter" less.

With the exception of Faith - who stands out because she is the "innocent," the church going one who gets treated with special consideration by the others - none of the girls really stands out as a more than two-dimensional character, and none is really all that distinguishable from the others. The performances, then, don't really matter, although the actresses are all admirably game for whatever Harmony Korine throws their characters into. Franco, meanwhile, delivers an oddly fascinating performance as Alien, who is equal parts bluster and vulnerability, begging the girls to be impressed by his lifestyle and material goods ("Look at all my shit," he says, over and over again), and somewhat cowed by their superior ability to take care of business. His public persona may be insufferable, but when he's truly invested in a role Franco can really bring unique textures to a performance.

Spring Breakers is not a movie that everyone will like - I'm still not actually even sure whether I liked it - but I think that beyond its candy coated facade and stunt casting there actually is something of substance here. I'm not sure that it's quite as deep or subversive as Korine wants it to be, but I do think it comes pretty damn close.

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