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Spring Breakers: There’s Beauty in the Breakdown

I've been trying to come up with a pithy way of describing the experience of watching Harmony Korine's much-hyped beachsploitation picture Spring Breakers and here's what I've come up with: If Terrence Malick and Sofia Coppola had a baby and that baby grew up to be Britney Spears who began every performance of "...Baby One More Time" by taking a gigantic hit of cocaine, that's Spring Breakers. Much of the pre-release hype has centered on the casting of former tween superstars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens as spring break-bound girls gone wild and that bit of stunt casting is obviously a publicity-friendly coup for a filmmaker who has mostly worked on the fringes of the industry. But the bigger coup that Korine pulls off is using those actresses and their rowdy "spring break forever" mantra as window dressing for a highly stylized art film that brutally (and, at times, brilliantly) sends up a society and (pop) culture that enables and enhances all the things it claims to bemoan, from the oversexualization of young women to glamorizing thug life. Spring Breakers doesn't pretend that it has any solutions to offer or that it's not, to a certain extent, part of the problem; like Natural Born Killers (another obvious stylistic inspiration), it's attempting to be both a critique and the thing its critiquing.

If I were feeling generous, I'd estimate that Spring Breakers has maybe 20 minutes of actual plot, one which involves a quartet of fun-starved college girls (Gomez, Hudgens, Ashley Benson and the director's wife, Rachel Korine) raising the funds -- i.e. robbing a diner, in a terrific sequence that's staged in one take -- to attend spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida, where they inevitably party too hard and end up in the slammer. They're soon sprung by small-time drug dealer Alien (James Franco), who welcomes them into his home and even invites them to join his operation, which is currently engaged in a turf war with Alien's former friend and now much more successful gangster, Archie (Gucci Mane). That the movie ends up running for 93 minutes is the result of the way that Korine tells this wisp of a story, employing dreamy montages scored to the actors' voiceover musings, multiple repetitions of the same scene from different angles, flashbacks, flash-forwards and cutaways to the natural world surrounding the characters -- a natural world that, in this case, features alcohol-fueled ragers, rampant public nudity and endless teen-on-teen grinding. It's the same style that defines films like Coppola's The Virgin Suicides and Malick's The New World, but Spring Breakers ends up casting a very different spell. Far from finding beauty and mystery in the landscape he's chosen -- as Coppola and Malick so often do -- Korine transforms the ultimate spring break destination into a desolate teenage wasteland.

Not that you should take this version of spring break as 100 percent authentic, mind you. (That may seem obvious, but it's probably a point worth stressing since this is the same guy who wrote Kids all those years ago and managed to trick the entire adult population of America into thinking it was a documentary.) It's every bit as heightened and artificial as the more upbeat and cheerily provocative MTV/Girls Gone Wild depiction of this cultural rite of passage and, in fact, Korine specifically draws on a lot of the same imagery glimpsed in those productions -- opening the movie with a scene of young people frolicking in the surf, gulping down alcohol and doffing their bikini tops. He returns to this image again and again as the movie progresses and each time it recurs, it seems a bit less like a party and more like the seventh circle of hell. The director appropriates and recontextualizes other memorable pop culture remnants as well, including the aforementioned Spears single -- and accompanying video -- that made her career. Early on, Korine's quartet of spring breakers start singing "...Baby One More Time" in the parking lot of a St. Petersburg convenience store. At first, they're just casually crooning the words, but then it escalates into a full-fledged performance with them shaking their booties in the same lascivious, suggestive way that Catholic schoolgirl-clad Spears did 15 years ago. What Korine is getting at, I think, is that these are the children of the Britney Spears era -- they've absorbed her image of what "grown-up" sexuality is and parrot it back without irony and forethought in the same way that their fellow revelers back at the beach are attempting to live out the spring break fantasies promised by MTV.

I wouldn't blame you if you think I'm giving this movie waaaay too much credit. On the other hand, I'm not sure you're giving Korine enough. As far back as Kids he's been fascinated by youth culture, especially as it relates to pop culture and celebrity. (It's no accident that his best movie up until now is Mister Lonely, which takes place at a commune populated entirely by celebrity impersonators.) Spring Breakers is perhaps his most fully-realized expression of that interest -- whether you ultimately buy what he's selling or not -- far more cohesive and compelling than movies like Gummo and Trash Humpers. And yes, I'm not blind to the way he's reveling a bit too much in being able to direct his beautiful, much younger stars to act sexy and slutty for his camera. (To add to the creep factor, he saves some of the more graphic content -- and prolonged bits of nudity -- for his wife, Rachel. For those with more prurient interests in the movie, the other three actresses don't flash much skin beyond what you see in the trailers, although Hudgens and Benson do enjoy a spirited three-way with Franco at one point.) That he's practicing satire-by-way-of-imitation may be a convenient excuse, but it's not a particularly convincing one.

To their credit, all four actresses are game for the kind of movie Korine has set out to make, but they aren't so much acting here as they are acting out. As characters, they're intentional ciphers -- everygirl avatars subject to Korine's whims. The only full-bodied performance in the movie is given by Franco and he's... amazing. Unshackled from the commercial demands of a movie like Oz the Great and Powerful, the notoriously weird actor completely gives in to his demented id as Alien, the Zeus of wanna-be white gangstas. Sporting corn rows and a mouthful of silver grills and uttering all his lines in a laid-back drawl, Franco's all-in commitment to the part elevates it beyond mere parody. He's the Kevin Federline to the girls' collective Britney. This is driven home in what is probably my favorite scene in Spring Breakers, where Alien tickles the ivories on a poolside piano and leads his "brides"/accomplices in a surprisingly heartfelt sing-a-long of Spears's "Everytime" with the girls wearing ski masks that have the image of a My Little Pony-esque cartoon unicorn emblazoned on them. (Several times throughout the movie, they're glimpsed watching episodes of Friendship is Magic, a comforting escape, perhaps, from more adult pursuits like partying.) It's hilarious, of course, but it also represents a turning point in their lives -- a passage from their childhood into what they all imagine to be maturity... even though it's anything but.

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