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.
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