The more I think about it, the weirder Spring Breakers becomes. It is in no way a normal kind of movie. It is a Harmony Korine movie, and Harmony Korine (Gummo, Trash Humpers, writer of Kids) doesn’t make normal movies, even ones set during spring break in Florida, the preview for which looks like an outtake from a nightmarish MTV reality show you’d rather spoon your eyes out than watch. Spring Breakers is not the movie advertised in the preview. I become gleeful at the thought of misled teenagers gaping stupified at the screen, wondering where their party movie went, unable to process the meaning of what they’re watching.
What is the meaning of what they’re watching? This is not a question easily answered. I’ve read numerous interviews of Korine since seeing it, and he’s no better at explaining the movie than I’m going to be. Many ideas are at play in Spring Breakers. They rise up, fade out, fade back in, grow into other ideas and meanings, or disappear completely. Korine isn’t interested in making a specific point. He’s interested in bringing up images and ideas and seeing where they lead, he’s following along with the audience, just as unsure as the rest of us where we’re all going to end up. This is something of a curious way to make a movie. It doesn’t always work, but it makes you want to see where this crazy movie goes next.
Spring break is an American institution. It was in fact created by the movies (thanks for the timely article on that point, NYT). Spring Breakers satirizes spring break, or more precisely the idea that spring break is an American institution, or more precisely still it satirizes the kind of people who believe spring break is important and valuable and the thing one should desire in life more than anything else. Which maybe to be as obsessed with spring break as are the four girls in the movie is itself part of the satire, because who’s that obsessed by spring break?
Well, lots of kids, I suppose. They’ve been trained by MTV, among other media overlords, to believe there’s no better time in life than spring break in Florida. James Franco, who plays gangster/rapper/piano crooner Alien in what is surely the best role of his life, whispers “spring break” in a breathy rasp, and it’s repeated on the soundtrack over and over again, half enticement, half demonic incantation. The gangster life, or at least the gangster life as we know it from movies and TV, is likewise weirdly celebrated/mocked. And somehow it all makes sense that girls in bikinis and spring break and cocaine and parties and gangsters and automatic weapons and hip-hop all go together. According to MTV and American culture at large, they do go together. Okay then.
The four girls, Faith, Candy, Brit, and Cotty (played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine), once they make it to Florida, wear their bikinis for the entire movie. Which is surely a statement about something or other. This is at its most absurd after they’re arrested and show up in court. They can’t make bail, so they’re stuck in jail for two days, or would be if Alien didn’t bail them out.
Speaking of the plot, there isn’t much of one. Four girls want out of their boring college lives, but they don’t have enough money to make it to spring break. So three of them rob a diner with a plastic gun and a hammer, and off they go. They party and then they party some more and then at one party the cops show up and they’re arrested. Once bailed out by Alien, they get mixed up in his gangster lifestyle until, one by one, the girls go home. Sort of.
None of this plays out as it would in a normal movie. The opening section before they make it to spring break is bleak and lonely. Faith hangs out with her church group getting jazzed up on Jesus. The other girls mope around until deciding on the robbery. “Pretend it’s a video game,” they say, often, and in a way the whole movie is a video game. Or a music video. There’s not much dialogue in the movie.
The editing propels the story forward with a swirling circularity. It’s as though the whole movie is a montage that only occasionally slows down enough for something like a normal scene to play out. There are precious few normal scenes. And even those are edited together to include pieces of past and future scenes. It’s as though a swirling eddy is moving from one end of the movie to the other, such that past shots crop up over and over again, each with decreasing frequency as the movie moves farther beyond their first appearance, and future shots increase in frequency until we meet that future, and what we’d focused on before now exist only as little pieces still showing up here and there, and new future pieces start popping up until they too take over. If you see what I mean.
Because of the editing, the movie is alternately fascinating and boring. For example, once the girls get to spring break and start partying, the montage is in full effect, they’re partying, they’re talking in the pool, it’s all magical, they repeat the same words over and over about how they want it to last forever, and pretty quickly you get it, it feels like the montage has gone on as long as these things do, and then it doesn’t end. It keeps going until you’re sort of hypnotized and thinking, okay, I guess this is the whole movie? And it’s boring. Finally they move on to the next thing, which inevitably morphs into it’s own montage that never ends.
Spoken words circle back around too, as in the whispered “spring break,” and a phone conversation one of the girls has with her grandmother back home. We only hear the girl’s half of the conversation. She talks about how wonderful it is, how the people they’ve met are so sweet, and so on. It’s played three times in the movie, each as a voice-over comment on what we’re watching. Each time it has very different significance. It’s comic when the montage is kids partying, it’s horrifying—or, possibly, even more comic—when the montage is of the last two girls, wearing pink ski masks adorned with unicorns, gunning down a mansion-full of gangsters.
Yes, that happens too, shortly after Alien plays the Britney Spears song “Everytime” on the white piano he keeps outside by his pool, and the three pink-masked, gun-toting girls sing with him in what is probably the best music video of all time. What statement is being made by this I’m not sure, but it’s funny enough—horrific enough?—that my bafflement is rather beside the point.
I don’t know what the point is. If we can narrow it down to anything, maybe the point is contrast. Scenes start out as satire, move abruptly into something genuinely terrifying, only to whip back to comedy. In a parking lot the three girls re-enact their robbery for Faith, who didn’t take part. They point their fingers as guns to Faith’s head and yell things like, “Shut the fuck up and give me your money or I’ll motherfucking kill you!”, or words to that effect, and it’s dark and weird and there’s a pause and Faith, totally unperturbed, says, “Really? You said that?” and all the tension vanishes. And then they enact it even more intensely and now it’s really fucked up and disturbing, and Faith reacts with the same calm, and again it’s defused. This type of thing happens throughout. Wait till two of the girls fuck James Franco’s mouth with his loaded guns. There’s a scene you won’t soon forget.
Half of the party montages look like you’re watching MTV, but with cocaine and nudity. At times it’s too much and you wonder why you’re in the damn theater at all. Suddenly the music and montage cease and you find yourself in the middle of a massive house party with a bunch of drunk as fuck idiots pounding alcohol, nearly naked, with a scummy guy saying, “I’m gonna get me that pussy,” and a dangerously drunk girl writhing on the floor, taking her top off saying, “No, you’re not,” and you think, yeah, great, it’s the date-rape party house. What a blast.
By the end, with the Spears song and the raid on the gangster’s mansion, the movie goes fully into fantasy-land. Then again, the whole movie is a kind of fantastical nightmare. It’s shot by Benoît Debie with, as Korine puts in, colors like Skittles. Debie also shot Enter The Void, a bizarre three hour excursion into neon and color with a camera always in motion. He brings some of that vibe to Spring Breakers.
The movie opens with an extreme slow-motion sequence of kids partying on the beach, with an appropriately outrageous song playing over it, and goes so over the top you think you know what you’re in for: big, obvious satire. A different movie follows. It’s satire, all right, of some sort. Does it work? Does it hit its targets? I guess it often does. It hits them, but doesn’t know what to do with them once struck. Or doesn’t care to wait around and figure it out. Or something. Honestly, I have no idea. I will say this: overall, I enjoyed it. There’s a lot to like in Spring Breakers. It’s also seedy, uncomfortable, and, at times, boring. Which I’m not sure are necessarily problems. Do I recommend it? Well…I think I do. As I said, it’s not a normal movie. And that’s a good thing.