The first sequence of Harmony Korine’s devilishly good new film “Spring Breakers”—comprised of intimate views of scantily clad, young female body-parts on a Florida beach, most of them gyrating—perfectly encapsulates the film’s modus operandi. This type of establishing shot has become commonplace in T&A-focused cinema, like the latest “Porky’s” knockoff (whatever that was) — to the point at which most male viewers would be disappointed if a movie called “Spring Breakers” didn’t include it at some point. But the way that Korine presents the images is more extreme than usual: in gratuitous close-up, set to intense and overwhelming electronica by Skrillex. Korine heightens what viewers expect of this genre—what they require to proverbially “get off”—so that the film tightly straddles the fine line between arousal and offensiveness. In doing so, the filmmaker allows the viewer to be both thrilled in the moment and then later skeptical of the pornographic place that American art/culture may be headed.
These two seemingly contradictory experiences may cause some critics to deem “Spring Breakers” hypocritical, but this is not so, in that the film’s sex- and violence-filled events are grounded in hyperbole rather than realism. Unlike many of the less extreme works that it’s riffing on, from “American Pie 2” to MTV’s long-running, so-called reality show “The Real World,” the film never attempts to normalize its lewd behavior. Instead, the material is always depicted as an outrageous silver-screen fantasy — one that audiences can take pleasure in without practically glorifying, as it’s so far removed from reality. But what Korine powerfully suggests at the same time is that this could eventually become a “normalized” film if we allow our society to engage its basest urges too intensely, to both internalize and continually demand more in the way of explicitness from the “American Pie”s and “Real World”s. This is where “Spring Breakers” attains its social relevance: it’s not only a fantasy, but a comment about how fantasy should be responsibly presented and viewed.
That’s not to say that there are no nuggets of realism couched within the fantasy, but rather, that they are just that: nuggets that support the larger vision, rather than major components of film. Perhaps the most accurate element is Korine’s depiction of how naïve, collegiate-aged kids see the world and interact with one another. For instance, in an early scene, before the main characters get to Spring Break, they sit in a lecture hall where nearly every student’s laptop is lit up, several of their screens turned to something other than the professor’s Powerpoint presentation. This is a dominant trend in college—going to class not to learn, but to screw around on Facebook on your parents’ (or the government’s) dime—and yet “Spring Breakers” is the first film to depict it, to my knowledge. Perhaps this detail is not a major accomplishment on its face, but it’s a strong indicator that Korine is in touch with today’s youth. In other words, it enhances his credibility as a social commentator on the broader issues that the film tackles, like the aforementioned cultural internalization of obscenity and the questionable healthiness of late-teens rites of passage like Spring Break.
The plot of “Spring Breakers” could be well-summarized in a single line—four small-town college girls rob a restaurant to fund their spring break in St. Petersburg, where they’re taken under the wing of a drug-kingpin/white-rapper named Alien (James Franco)—and indeed, the film is much more about individual images and moments than it is about narrative. (Most of the the actual story-points, such as Selena Gomez’s Faith heading home when Alien’s imposing demeanor and illegal behavior scare her away, are simply there to add a sense of forward momentum.) Viewers will find more value in elements like Korine and cinematographer Benoît Debie’s electric, grainy visual poetry, which offers constant juxtapositions between the titillating and the ugly, aesthetically embodying the film’s dual dynamic of both cinematic escape and cultural critique. The editing of certain sequences is striking, as Korine frequently fuses non-linear cuts with dreamlike voiceover — a Malick-influenced style in a movie where you’d least expect it. And then there’s the way that Korine lets actor Franco completely take over scenes, achieving a certain transcendence as he personifies this insane cartoon character (“Bikinis and big booties, y’all, that’s what life is about!”) to such an unafraid extent. A montage in which Alien performs Britney Spears’ “Everytime” must be seen to be believed.
Korine has built a career around being a provocateur, and on the surface, “Spring Breakers” is certainly shocking, especially in that it stars Disney Channel tween-queens Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in such salacious roles. (I shudder to think that clueless mothers might take their young daughters to a film that’s just a few shots shy of an NC-17 rating because of the cast.) But whereas Korine’s previous films like “Kids” (which he wrote for director Larry Clark), “Gummo,” and “Julien Donkey-Boy” felt as though they sought to shock merely to get a rise out of the audience, “Spring Breakers” does so in order to make us think about ourselves and our society. The film asks us to consider when we should be attracted to shocking material and when we should be repelled by it — a question that it’s safe to assume Korine has recently spent a lot of time contemplating, given the newfound artistic maturity and moral conscience with which the filmmaker conducts this minor masterpiece.