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Spring Breakers been a runaway hit at South by Southwest, and with good reason: It’s a catchy, adrenaline-filled, sexualized, Skrillex-soundtracked, over-the-top look at a life-altering fall from grace experienced by four college students. Sure, it has the aesthetic of a Girls Gone Wild video mashed up with Scarface (and there’s certainly a portion of the film’s audience that will be all too happy to take it at that face value), but deep beyond its epic one-liners, brazen nudity, omnipresent drug use and stylized scenes of criminal activity, there’s a core that reveals an all-too-terrifying truth about the desensitization of youth and the moral quandaries it presents.
While the film is in writer/director Harmony Korine’s wheelhouse when it comes to controversial subjects and in-your-face scenarios (this is the guy who wrote Kids, after all; he knows a thing or two about spot-on portrayals of a generation), it’s perhaps his most narratively straightforward directorial offering, and, for the most part, the enthusiastic buzz about the movie is on point.
That is to say, after watching Spring Breakers, you’ll have Britney Spears and Skrillex stuck in your head on a loop, you’ll quote (and re-quote, and re-quote) James Franco’s dialogue (his crooning repetition of “spring breeeeeeak” will haunt your nightmares), you’ll never watch High School Musical the same way again, you’ll feel the crushing urge to view Scarface on repeat, you’ll realize you’re inadequately prepared (abdominally speaking) for swimsuit season, and you’ll suffer the after-effects of an onslaught of so much perverse and perverted imagery that you’ll want to disinfect yourself by taking a bath in (and swallowing shots of) tequila.
Clearly, Spring Breakers isn’t for the faint of heart or the easily offended. I cannot stress this enough. One would think, considering the festival feedback, trailers, clips and Korine’s previous work, it’d be a no-brainer, yet I shuddered when I read that someone brought his “of age” child to a screening. Perhaps the two have an unorthodox relationship, but considering that rampant slow-motion breast-wobbling, swimming pool threesomes, leering crotch shots, coke-snorting and bong-hitting just scratch the surface of the film’s imagery, the experience of watching it with your parent or child would be an exercise in torture, if not permanently scarring.
Of course, much of this is by design for Korine. In ironic fashion, he hired actresses who rose to fame as teenagers (namely, Disney-bred stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens) to play the leads. Spring Breakers is their coming-out party: It will change their careers in one fell swoop, but it’s also indicative of their fans. To watch these actresses take this risk is to fully understand how much you’ve seen them grow in the public eye, and exactly how that is a microcosm for their generation. The film is equal parts dismal and fascinating — a familiar coming-of-age plotline on steroids, wholly unsettling because none of the motivations and consequences of the group’s actions feels all that far off.
Gomez plays the aptly named Faith, a religious girl who’s been friends with the crazy, morally ambiguous Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) since childhood. Now college-aged, the girls loaf about their dorm rooms and apartments smoking pot, swigging alcohol straight from the bottles, singing pop hits from their youth (hello, Usher!) and doing handstands in the hallway wearing nothing but their underwear. The first 20 minutes of the film (barring the opening scene, which I’ll get to later) exhibits Sofia Coppola-like intimacy combined with Quentin Tarantino-esque obscenity. The girls are bored, they’re hundreds of dollars shy of funding their dream spring break vacation, and so they hatch a plan: Without Faith (metaphor!), they rob a local restaurant using squirt guns. It’s a frenetic and incredibly well-shot scene, and the barbarism and terror these cute young things are capable of is pretty astounding. Candy’s insistence that they “Pretend it’s a video game” and “Act like you’re in a movie” during the heist is explanation enough for what Korine is attempting to convey.
The robbery gets the girls (all four of them) to St. Petersburg, Florida, where they party to their hearts’ content, eventually becoming entwined with a local rapper/drug dealer named Alien (the absolutely transcendent Franco) and discover their earlier taste of sex, drugs and petty crime was only the beginning.
Korine is very calculated when it comes to putting the audience in the position of his players. His opening scene — a gratuitous, lecherous, out-of-hand beach party full of college students, wherein lewd beer-guzzling activities and bare-breasted women are on full display in glorious slow-motion — is meant to be shocking and awe-inspiring, and he repeats the technique during similarly crazy soirees throughout the film. Conversely, almost every scene transition is cut with a sharp gun clip-load sound effect; it makes you jump the first few times, but it also builds tension regarding what’s to come. As the movie progresses, both techniques garner less of a reaction — it’s not until you walk out that you realize as much, and your ability to empathize with the main characters is both horrifying and understandable. Essentially, Spring Breakers is like experiencing the Ludovico technique in reverse.
As far as performances go, this is unequivocally Franco’s movie. His role is purportedly based on a real-life St. Petersburg rapper, although I see a bit of Matthew McConaughey’s Dazed and Confused character in the mix (intentional or not, we can all agree that’s awesome). He gets to have all the fun in this; Alien is a surprisingly complex character, with completely opposite public and private personas. But most important: Every line he speaks is quotable. Every. Single. What’s more, he raps, sports a grill and braids, hosts an epic Britney Spears sing-along, enjoys a threesome with Hudgens and Benson, and showcases his talents at fellatio (it’s not what you think). In short, he’s pretty much sealed the deal on delivering the most insane and enjoyable performance of the year.
Hudgens is the biggest breakout of the girl group. She’s completely unbridled and unnerving as a short-tempered spitfire with a total lack of boundaries and judgment. Gomez sticks a bit closer to her former good-girl roots, embracing her character’s religious side while alternatively dipping her toes in murkier waters. Korine (the director’s wife) is serviceable as one of the hard-partying cronies, although Benson is given more of a chance to show some spark alongside Hudgens.
Spring Breakers, by all appearances, takes itself feather-lightly — the danger is that you can read into it as much or as little as you want. It’s most definitely not a film for teenagers: It’s a peppy, tongue-in-cheek movie that has “cult classic” written all over it, an insatiably quotable and crazy-fun ride, a loose, raunchy comedy and tense, tightly edited thriller rolled into one. But it’s also a bleak manifesto regarding the ills of our society and the increasingly wayward nature of its youth. Spring Breakers may invite a slew of former teen stars, but it’s an adults-only party.
Spring Breakers opens today in New York City and Los Angeles, and nationwide March 22.