“Spring Breakers” Fails to Seal the Deal

Spring break. Spring break. Spring break.

The words form a siren song in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a recurring dream that lures American boys and girls to their demise. When four young American teenagers rob a restaurant so that they can afford a trip to Florida, we know that nothing good will come of their adventure. But they are so full of hope for escape from their dreary existence – to live the lives they have been promised by MTV and the movies – that we can’t help but join in their yearning.

For the first half of Spring Breakers, Korine achieves this glorious balance, expressing on film the joyful catharsis of the American teenager on the loose, while giving the audience enough distance to be wary of the endpoints. Korine is an artist with the camera, and through his fluorescent visual palate and lush, forgiving lighting, he paints a fantasy that we enjoy in spite of our better judgment. Is he exploiting the very lifestyle he wishes to critique? You bet. But if he’s ambivalent, so is our society that markets and then condemns the values of promiscuity and intoxication. Korine confronts the viewer with these complexities for a stellar 45 minutes, but it’s enough to make a fan of good cinema cringe when, in the film’s dreary second half, he reverts to genre conventions and a surprisingly conservative ending.

Our anti-heroines are four college girls who have been friends since kindergarten; one of them has found religion (her name is Faith, so don’t expect any subtlety forthwith), the other three prefer the party. As we meet them on campus, Korine films them all with the same candy-colored palate. The party girls drink and drug in their day-glo wardrobe, while Faith prays in front of illuminated stained glass. Remarkably, the bad girls convince Faith to join them in Florida, and, after a robbery that goes as smooth as a video game, the quartet is ready for the party.

Spring Breakers

If this is Korine’s most accessible work to date (as most critics agree it is), it’s only because there is something we actually like about these girls and their search for transcendence. “I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been,” Faith tells her grandmother in a phone call, and it seems possible that she’s even being sincere. The camera finds some beauty in the debauchery and depravity of spring break, projecting a dilemma onto concerned parents in the audience. Are we rooting for these girls to enjoy the party or be struck down with the consequences of their actions? The highest compliment I can give Spring Breakers is that, even after the final reel, I wasn’t sure.

The girls drink, drug, and party with frat boys. Physical danger seems to be just a heartbeat away, but Korine stays on the fringes of realism, and the girls largely escape our worst fears.  They debase themselves, sure, but there are no consequences – until suddenly there are. They are arrested for drug possession and bailed out of jail by the creepy but charismatic Alien, a criminal played by James Franco in an energetic performance that doesn’t just steal scenes but ends up derailing the film completely.

As Alien leads them through a tour of the St. Petersburg underworld, Korine abandons poetry and ambiguity in favor of the conventions of a gangster flick. Alien’s rivalry with another gangster deepens, and violence is inevitable. For all of the first half’s originality and complexity, the violent climax nearly reduces the entire film to a simple exercise in genre. In the end, the film is unable to continue threading its way through the difficult moral dilemmas introduced in the first act. That it was able to succeed as long as it did is accomplishment enough.

But genre filmmaking also lends itself to support for the status quo – after all, sticking to the conventions of what has worked before will not lead to any sweeping change – and Spring Breakers ultimately reveals a very conservative moral center. Come to spring break, Korine tells us, but don’t stay too long. It strikes me that Spring Breakers is a feature-length version of the old story of the father who catches his son smoking cigarettes and makes him smoke a whole carton to teach him a lesson. The only difference with Korine – and this is the film’s ultimate saving grace – is that he forces us to admit we still enjoy the buzz.

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue

5 thoughts on ““Spring Breakers” Fails to Seal the Deal

  1. Good review. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the cast and message about the movie make it worth the watch. It may not be an easy watch, but it’s still worth a watch.

  2. I actually thought Franco was the what kept me in the film. The second half, which you aptly described as caught up in genre more than art, was Franco’s stage and I think he nailed it. How many times did I have to remind myself I was watching James Franco and not some totally cracked out St. Pete thug on the screen? A lot. But maybe that’s just because I’m from Vermont where the biggest crime is not buying someone else a beer at the local apres-ski watering hole.

    Energetic performance for sure, and one that I’ll remember. This is the same guy who got stuck for 127 Hours, is currently the Great and Wonderful Oz, was known as Tristan in Tristan and Isolde while also hanging out on General Hospital and SpiderMan.

    Franco didn’t derail the film (for, as you say, that part was off the tracks to begin with); he kept it from being a total train wreck.

    • Judging by other reviews, you seem to be in the majority on this one. I agree that Franco gave an energetic performance, but despite his best efforts, I didn’t really care about his feud with his best friend-turned-rival.

  3. I agree. I didn’t either. It was a cheap seed for the violence that Korine needed to support the second half. I actually think the problem was that he couldn’t have a character like Franco in that film and was trying to downplay it be keeping parts of his bio vague and absent. He should have either let Franco lead the movie, or deprioritized him enough to let the vibe of the first half speak.

    Inspired acting that was better than the plot…which I guess was your original point, so shame on me. 🙂

    • For shame!!

      No, I’m glad you brought it up. Truthfully, most critics seem to think that the film really takes off when Franco enters. I agree with you, though – he kind of kills the film because he’s so good. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to predict.

      Ryan Gosling does the same thing in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” which opens this week. He’s only in about half the film, and whenever he’s not there, the film suffers.

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