Spring Breakers

Act like you're in a movie or something
★★★
☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Harmony Korine
Starring: 
James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson
The Setup: 
Four young women on spring break are led astray.
Discussion: 

My friend and I were such fans of Mister Lonely, Harmony Korine's earlier film about a Michael Jackson imitator who takes up with a Marylin Monroe imitator, that we were both quite keen to see this. Not to mention that there's always fun to be had in scathing satires about youth gone wild and ending up in far worse trouble than they're prepared to deal with, and the promise of James Franco doing what he does best in abandoning himself to the role of a skeezy beach troll. And if you follow pop culture you might get some frisson from seeing young Disney starlets now acting sleazy and violent.

We open (and close) with these lovely credits in the style of tropical-themed lamps and illuminated signs, then soon go into some footage that represents exactly what we expect of this film, which is a bunch of college-aged kids in various modes of undress jumping up and down, screaming, drinking, and generally acting like idiots. I was interested in an image of a line of guys standing above a line of women who are laying on their backs, mouths open, as the guys hold beer cans to their crotches and let the beer drip into the women's mouths, which creates the impression that the man are urinating into the women's mouths. This image appears again toward the end of the film. This is what I sort of expected from the film; that it would gather a bunch of footage that expose the venality and vacuity of those involved, but it turns out the film has entirely different, and less easily parsed, things on its mind.

We then join our four leads in a college somewhere not too far from Florida. I only got the name of one of them, Faith, played by Selena Gomez, who is a bit more introspective then the other women and is shown in a prayer meeting with a pastor who is dressed like a biker and screaming to know if they are "jacked up on Jesus!" Then we meet two others ignoring a lecture on black slavery to draw pictures of cocks in their notebooks, which one of them mimes giving oral sex to. They are psyched to go on spring break, but soon discover that they don't have the money. They soon hit on a plan, involving the two other women for a total of four, to rob a diner with black squirt guns and a mini-sledgehammer. Some are nervous, but the others say "Pretend like it's a video game. Act like you're in a movie or something."

Even from that, you might think "Okay, that's our easily-digestive nugget about how vacuous this younger generation is, and woe betide our society at large, oh woe!" And you might feel that this film is laying it on pretty thick when you hear those lines repeated again, but again, the movie as a whole proves much more slippery and less easily pinned-down than that. The repetition of those lines proves to be part of a larger scheme of repetition, which starts to provide a dream-like, outside-of-time atmosphere to the story told here. The women (it's a struggle for me not to automatically call them "girls") rob the patrons of the diner silently as the camera circles the restaurant from the outside (we will later have a repeat of the scene, but from the inside, with the sound of the women yelling at the patrons and feeling much more of the patron's terror). The women get their money and take off for spring break.

For a while it's all partying, drinking, going to the beach, doing drugs, hanging out and singing Britney Spears in parking lots. We hear phone messages Faith leaves for her Grandmother, who she didn't tell she was leaving, that it's a very "spiritual" place where they're free to be who they really are, and are meeting so many fascinating and really nice people. She says she can't wait to come back with grandma in tow, which is kind of funny. Party, party, fun and freedom, until one day the women are at a party where numerous drugs are being consumed when the police invade and arrest several people, including all of them. We're then treated to the somewhat funny image of these young women in bikinis and flip-flops hanging in a jail holding cell. Their bail is higher than they can pay. Then, suddenly, they're released. Who paid their bail? Why, James Franco as Alien, white hip-hop gangster with cornrows, tattoos and a mouth full of fake steel teeth. And now they're all beholden to this guy they don't know, with friends they don't know, and motivations they're too scared to really think about.

SPOILERS > > >
Faith smells danger fast. Alien, revealed to be a drug dealer, takes them to hang out in a dangerous-seeming joint with numerous African-Americans who may or may not be forming plans about what to do with these naive young lovelies, and Faith starts to be really clear that she wants to go home. Alien has a long and uncomfortably seductive talk with her, while the other women are saying (this was one of my favorite lines:) "We won't let anything bad happen to you!" Still, Faith is a smart cookie and she wants out. We hear another message to her grandmother, now quite disillusioned, lamenting that "we were supposed to find ourselves" on their trip, but none of that really happened. She gets on a bus and is out of there. One is then set up for the terrible turns awaiting the other women, but again, this movie is far less conventional than that.

They are taken to Alien's house, where Franco has a notable scene in which he takes them to a bed strewn with giant machine guns, cash, knives, and numerous colorful shorts of which he is very proud, saying "look at all my shit!" Two of the women grab machine guns and play with Alien seductively, putting the barrels into his mouth. It is implied that they all start having sex with him. He takes them to a nightclub where we learn that he was the protege of a local African-American drug dealer, played by Gucci Mane, but then set off on his own and took over a chunk of territory from the gangster, who is now his sworn enemy. They start robbing other spring breakers to get money for themselves and Alien, seeming to like the power of terrifying victims that they tasted with their diner stick-up.

At a certain point they're out driving when the rival gangster pulls up and tells Alien he'd better watch it. As they drive off, the gangster's wife sprays the car with machine gun fire, seemingly setting a theme in which the man has total control and the women do his violent bidding. One of the women is hit in the arm, and gets impromptu surgery by Alien to remove the bullet, which seems to serve as an unspoken rite of passage into gangster life. Soon they are planning a raid of the gangster's massive estate, where we see him inside with "all his shit" and numerous friends, his wife beside him holding their baby. The end of the movie is a massive shootout in which the two remaining women, who have embraced the gangster lifestyle for the feeling of power it gives them, raid the house in neon bikinis and hot pink knit face masks. They create a powerful image that itself becomes a lot of the content here. Alien is killed right off in the assault, then the women stalk through the house and execute the rest of its inhabitants. They then take the Lamborghini, and the final image is of them driving through the night toward an uncertain future, but one in which they'll probably do just fine.
< < < SPOILERS END

So as I read reviews of this film I encounter a lot of hand-wringing, like oh dear, America's blithe, amoral youth, oh dear, the amount of exploitative leering at the bodies of our young lovelies, oh dear, where is the positive message or destructive consequences? Much of this perhaps comes from expectations of how a narrative such as this must follow (amoral women sin and are punished) and bewilderment at how this film simply doesn't follow them. But the film is surprising and unconventional and doesn't lend itself to any simple narrative, and for that I think we should be happy, rather than fault it. It's nice, if perhaps less immediately satisfying, to walk out of a film with one's mind filled with a bunch of wild, powerful images that hint at a grander and more textured picture that one can only grasp fragments of, then to come out saying "X plus Y equals Z, so where should we go for dinner?"

From what it did leave me with, this film would make a delightful, if perverse, double-feature with Stoker, in that they are both tales of women's empowerment, albeit in ways that I don't think too many people want women to be empowered. Faith earlier in the film laments that "we were supposed to find ourselves” (though where she got that idea is anyone's guess), and one could argue that by the end of the film, the women do find themselves--as amoral killers. Their arc is clearly laid out from the time they rob the diner, pretending that they're in a movie or video game, and they simply progress from there. In the classic empowerment narrative, they realize that they don't have to be held back by the restrictions placed upon them, which in this case may be to remain in the role of pretty-but-dumb party girls and eye candy, and grab the guns themselves and end up driving off in the Lamborghini. It's like Thelma and Louise, only if Thelma and Louise hadn't faced that there's no place for their liberation in a man's world, and hence they must destroy themselves, but instead decided that their place in a man's world is to join it full on and kill or be killed. Both critique patriarchy and sexism, only this one puts in viewer's faces the reality of what such a system may create.

So, fascinating and different, more a work of art than an MTV-ready party narrative, disturbing, troubling, and definitely worth seeing.

Should you watch it: 

You sure should.