A Yearly Calling to Booze and Break Free
For certain college kids, the annual seductive week off in March makes a bland small Florida metropolis a beacon of exploration and exile. It’s a temporary static lapse of judgment and rationality, a chance for the “id” to shake, snort, smoke, and strip in the “superego’s” face as it drowns itself in alcohol and sexual spirit. You can find these cheap thrills and their cathartic powers on any MTV reruns, but they don’t capture the extremely provocative totalities of the infamous escape from Universities. Leave it to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers to expose, shock, and lucidly capture the existential ride and tempting dark forces of a week so starkly full of life and bitter disappointment.
Look to the film’s preamble, a slow pan of topless blondes whose arms reach for the sky as amber waves of Natural Light grain dribble from their mouths and splash over their bellies. It is a momentary American baptism under upbeat techno that flips the finger to the structured households from which these kids have fled. Naturally the camera migrates from the bare (as in skin) beaches to the classroom. One girl mimics a blowjob in a large lecture hall, subsequently writing down “Spring Break” on a notebook to her eager friend.
Find the sharp but fragile dichotomy watching a coach bus headed to St. Petersburg, which turns its geometrical gray seats into a colorful messy rave of anticipation. Needless to say, those seats are painful and imposing reminders of past thrills and the current reality of boredom setting back in on a quiet hung-over ride home. A microcosm comes in the form of neon clothing, whose Skrillex pulsating black-lit flare feels invigorating and euphoric in a moment of coked-out bliss. Morning comes and exposes the clashing highlight yellows and pinks adorned by headbands, sunglasses and bikinis, colors and items that have become iconographic for the current generation of partygoers.
Constantly transgressing legal and moral boundaries in their liminal states are four impressionable but self-assured college girls. Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens play Faith and Candy respectively and are the once starlet family friendly faces the Disney Channel fostered, here exemplifying the antithesis of their former employer conglomerate. The other two Brit and Cotty are played by Ashley Benson and Harmony’s wife Rachel Korine to make up the quartet. Faith is the most naïve, catered by an intense religious regimen at home while the other three test her limits of Bible loyalty. As Spring Break begins however, the four have little money to head south, and resort to a restaurant-robbing plan. Candy and Brit infiltrate a small eatery with black ski masks, a water gun, and sledgehammer, a small indicator of their evolving characters. We share the driver Cotty’s perspective as she pulls around towards the exit. We can imagine what’s happening inside, but the realities wait to be retold to Faith in hauntingly practical fashion.
They board the bus, find their motel, and in no time they have immersed into the “Girls Gone Wild” renegade the St. Pete natives both expect and repel. Korine might be charged with severe exploitation, but in his hyper-sensational frame, there is also a daring authenticity in its portrayals, a critique of the glamorized risk-averse actions that plague today’s teenage crowds. “Spring Break” is both a short vacation and a prophetic way of thinking, provoking states of unwanted returns and self-discovery that feels real and also intentionally ludicrous. Laughter erupts in the echoes of the girls’ desire to freeze their lives under the gulf coast sunset, part of the tragic-comedy in feeling the summer breeze above the shuffling through beer cans.
A couple of snorted lines and bad timing after a few days lands the four in jail without money for bail or their fines. Enter James Franco. He plays a cornrowed hustler named Alien, complete with a medal mouth grill and a serious amount of cash. He bails the girls out of prison, but isn’t clear on exactly how he’d like to get repaid. This freaks out Faith who hypothesizes a world of trouble in an emotional breakdown and quickly the Florida haven loses its dream-like atmosphere. The other three are content to stay, personally unaffected by their slow changing itinerary.
Franco is as big a part of this breakdown playing a character in which he appears his most comfortable. “Spring Break, Spring Break Forever” he breathes, a phrase repeated throughout the rest of the film suggesting its cultural saturation. His bed supports wads of hundreds and mismatched automatic rifles, whose butt ends are used at one point as phallic objects, inserted sexually and queasily into Alien’s mouth. For whatever financial power he has over them, these girls, specifically Candy and Brit, which he claims to be his soul mates, have hardened. Quickly they become enveloped in a crosstown rivalry between another gangster (Gucci Mane) and his posse, which spirals into a graphically unrealistic but effective final act.
This is the life Florida bound teens visualize and conceptualize but in actuality never gravitate towards. The pleasures with this life come with automatic weaponry, nightclub heat, and grave consequences. It’s the latter that serves as the teaching point for kids spiraling in Alien’s direction, someone in love with doing the wrong things and finding people with whom to share his nihilistic experiences.
“Spring Breakers” is not for everyone, but the teenage wasteland it captures is not every college student either. It is a niche film encapsulating the lives of a niche grouping of bridled students whose transcendent moments make it something special, undoubtedly because of Korine’s remarkable, sometimes non-linear synthesis of sound and narrative. Cuts between scenes are not silent transitions but marked with gun cocks, dramatic emphasis on the usually ordinary. We follow a scene until its end, but then go back and see it from another angle, hear it another time. A word sounds strange when you repeat it over and over again. “Spring Break…Spring Break…”
And so, the bare breasted and boozed, the drugged and inebriated, become the emblems for the polarizing highs and lows of March ritual. Do we laugh along or condescend? The girls’ emotional arcs run their courses the same through dreams, hallucinations, and reality, but Korine doesn’t want us to necessarily find those delineations. He is much happier letting his audience decide on them, see the ritual in its element, and experience the melodic monotony of “Spring Break.”