Active Ingredients: James Franco; Fragmented narrative; Textured visual style
Side Effects: Philosophizing phone calls; Thin characters
Spring Breakers from edgy provocateur Harmony Korine will catch many viewers off guard. And that’s probably the point. Starring a bevy of former Disney princesses, the film promises sex, drugs and a heavy dose of hedonistic spring break revelry. The film certainly delivers titillation, but that it comes along with equal parts insidious danger threatens to spoil the party. For all its purposeful sloppiness, Spring Breakers is actually delicately balanced on a razor’s edge, having its party and crashing it too. It’s a delirious rush and the strangest wide release to hit theaters in some time.
Korine is best known for disturbing, polarizing and darkly comedic films such as Gummo and the appropriately-titled Trash Humpers, films that push buttons and, depending whom you ask, either say absolutely nothing or bravely present the hellish underbelly of the American dream. Spring Breakers opens itself up to the same criticism. It might be tempting for some to say that the film is as vapid as its wide-eyed teens, as empty as their partying. But Korine’s aggressively nontraditional visual and narrative style, and his skill for having fun with his characters without ever completely condemning them, create tensions that are too potent to be ignored.
The film is loosely constructed around the hazy experiences of four college girls who steal some money to fund a trip to Florida, where they hope to find themselves. In dreamy, incantatory voice-over the quartet explain that spring break is more than just fun in their eyes. It’s an opportunity to escape the monotony and routine of life, perhaps forever.
While all the philosophizing draws too fine a point, it brings to mind Terrence Malick, whose radical editing style atomizes narrative in much the same way Korine’s does here. Scenes are often presented only in brief ambiguous glimpses, intercut with contrasting images. Others are repeated, reprised or modified. The discontinuity is jarring, but combined with the film’s loud music and gaudy neon color palate, it creates a hypnotic, propulsive drive.
At about the halfway point, they meet James Franco‘s Alien, a tattooed, cornrowed rapper whose gangster lifestyle alternately attracts and repels the girls: the exact tension of Korine’s style. Alien embodies temptation, and the girls must choose to either get out while they can or fully commit to the anarchy that is spring break. It’s a brilliant performance, full of surprises and contradictions. Alien begins as caricature but develops into much more.
So too, perhaps, does the film. Spring Breakers is about capturing and sustaining that feeling in the pit of your stomach when fun slowly turns into something dangerous and destructive, and its great success is that Korine is attuned to both extremes.