Review: 'Spring Breakers' corrupts Gomez and Hudgens to sad and canny effect
AUSTIN - Harmony Korine has been a provocateur since the start of his film career, and his new film "Spring Breakers" may be the single most controlled and subversive thing he's made so far. Hypnotic and garish, the film feels like it was assembled from terrible music videos, irritating internet memes, and the worst impulses of a generation of kids raised on gangster culture. It's going to be interesting to see how this one lands, because I think some people will judge it by its surface, while other people will engage with what feels like a deliberate piece of deconstructionist art.
Even the casting of the movie seems to be an attempt to play off the relationship people have with pop culture. Selena Gomez stars as Faith, and there's no way her background as a Disney Channel star was not part of Korine's thought process. Faith is the one good girl in the group, and at the start of the film, we see the things that all of the girls do for release. For Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine), that's drinking and smoking pot and dancing, and for Faith, that's church group and prayer. The four of them are all broke, frustrated that they can't go to spring break in Florida with everyone else, and Faith in particular is dying to get out of their small town, to see the world for the first time.
The plot of the film, if written out in simple A-B-C film, is a fairly conventional mix of crime drama and teen spring break comedy, but the way Korine has built the film, it doesn't play out conventionally. Brit and Candy and Cotty decide to rob a restaurant in their town, and Korine shoots the robbery in a very smart real-time moment, watching from the outside as it unfolds, and that's a key clue to the way Korine shoots everything in the film. This is an experience, and through the use of repetition in his editing and in the language used by the characters, he gives it the feel of something remembered instead of something artificially staged for the camera.
The way he shoots the mayhem of spring break, the debauched drug-addled parties and the constant near-and-total nudity, it's almost like an alien trying to figure out what all of this sound and motion means. There is a sort of non-stop barrage of shots of bare bouncing breasts and barely-covered asses all bouncing as well, with beer bongs and blunts and bass beats so loud you feel them as actual blows in the theater, and the sheer overload of it becomes unsettling instead of titillating. And just when it starts to look like a wall of stock footage, you'll spot the leads right there in the middle of it. For a while, Faith throws herself into the parties with the same exact abandon as her friends, but Korine shows you the moments where Faith pulls back, where she is frightened by something she recognizes in her friends, something darker than she is willing to embrace. Here's where I think Korine is playing deliberately with iconography, because as much as Faith resists the creeping corruption, Candy steers right into it. Hudgens was just as much of a Disney kid as Gomez, but there is something carnal about Candy, something in her that wants every single trapping of the gangster life. She wants the money. She wants the drugs. She wants the houses and the boats and the sensual immersion, while Faith wants the fun and the friendship and the momentary illusion of freedom. She just wants to look at the world before she returns to her life, while Candy would be perfectly happy if her old life disappeared completely.
When the girls end up in jail, they catch the eye of Alien (James Franco), a low-level all-purpose scumbag, and he bails them out. He makes no immediate demand on them, but it's obvious that he's offering them all sorts of decadence. The rest of the movie deals with this obviously predatory relationship, and while there is an amoral end-of-the-world vibe to the movie, I think Korine is not making an amoral film. I think he is freaked out and alarmed by this idea that you can go somewhere and just drop reality and rules and any sense of right and wrong and just go insane. Alien is the ultimate endgame of that kind of no-boundaries behavior, and it's telling that almost as soon as he shows up, Faith is on a bus and on her way out of the film. Gomez pretty much makes it out of the film with her image intact, but the three other leads don't see Alien as a threat. Instead, they allow themselves to be seduced. And while Alien sees them as something he can use and exploit at first, there is also a very real sense that he recognizes something of himself in them, in that hunger that they have.
I can't even fully quantify or explain my reaction to some of the film. As a parent, I have never been happier that I do not have daughters, but I can't deny that Korine expertly crafts the film's candy-colored surface. The movie plays like an earworm, burrowing down into your consciousness. By the end of the film, you'll have Franco's "Spring breeeeeaaaaaak" in your head, in your ear, and you'll have images that you can't shake. I'm particularly interested in the way I've heard from several people now that the film "doesn't show anything." What they mean is that they were disappointed that there's no nudity from Gomez or Hudgens, because if you just want nudity, the film is positively sodden with it. I feel like I sat through a "Girls Gone Wild" video, and it is really unpleasant as a whole. And yet even after being almost assaulted by the nudity, I've still heard complaints because some viewers didn't see "the right" breasts. It's pretty telling as an indicator of what you're watching for.
On a level of pure filmcraft, "Spring Breakers" is sort of amazing. It is sleek, it is always propulsive, and there are times where it reaches a level of almost beautiful surreality. There's a particular use of a Britney Spears song that, taken as a stand-alone sequence, is oddly touching and bizarre. Benoit Debie is an exciting cinematographer who is building one of the most eclectic and daring filmographies around. He shot "Enter The Void" and "Irreversible" for Gaspar Noe, and he was a big part of the overheated Mexican prison world of "Get The Gringo." Here, he plays with neon overload and a sort of hyper-real sweaty aesthetic, and it's incredibly effective. The score by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex is sort of a non-stop punch in the head, and perfectly suited for the movie.
In terms of performance, I think Gomez is good, although she's really not asked to do much in the film, and in some ways, I find her such a timid presence on film that it's hard to judge her work. Hudgens, on the other hand, is magnetic. She manages to project such a concentrated combination of youthful energy and carnal desire that is is almost unsettling and times, and she and Benson in particular get to play some great scenes with Franco. When he tells that that he feels like they are his soulmates, it's very funny, but it's also absolutely true, and I give Franco real respect for being able to find a human being in what could have easily been a complete cartoon.
Just based on the experiences I've had trying to get into a screening of this film at Toronto and this festival, I wouldn't be surprised if this turned into a genuine cultural hit, making some real money in the process. What I'm curious about is how many people dig deep enough to get to the real movie Korine made, and how many end up taking all the wrong things from it. Should be fascinating.
"Spring Breakers" opens in limited release tomorrow, then wide next week.