Movie review: Spring Breakers

spring breakersIt’s almost impossible to fathom that in 2013, you can walk into a multiplex theater in well-heeled suburbia, as I did, and see the latest film from Harmony Korine amid the big-budget blockbusters and romantic comedies of the day.

After all, Korine was once the enfant terrible behind a series of notorious, button-pushing films, from “Kids” to “Gummo” to “Trash Humpers,” that made him one of the outre young directors. However, his relative notoriety began to fade as his later films were met with diminishing returns, making it seem as if he might be forever consigned to the extreme corner of indie cinema.

But you can never underestimate the power of babes in bikinis in resuscitating a career.

Stuffed to the gills with sex, drugs,violence and trashy characters – all Korine trademarks – but enhanced with a glossy sheen, star power and a healthy budget, SPRING BREAKERS is the most accessible film the director has ever made, so it’s no surprise that it received a major marketing push and wound up at your local AMC.

Now, those expecting any kind of straightforward story from the previews might be in for a bit of a bait-and-switch, although Korine keeps some of his more avant-garde tendencies in check with this tale of a quartet of girls who find much more than they bargained for when they travel to Florida to participate in the debaucherous rite of passage known as spring break.

Good girl Faith (former Bieb paramour and Disney queen Selena Gomez) joins her very bad-girl friends Candy (former Disney queen Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine) and Brit (Ashley Benson) on a trip to St. Pete that happens only after the latter three girls rob a restaurant to get the money they need to fund the journey.

While Faith has her qualms, they are quickly quashed in a haze of drink, drugs and partying among the college set. You have to imagine that Korine is making a statement about the ridiculousness of this seasonal ritual, showing naked coeds shaking their assets and flipping off the camera, while men pretend to “pee” on them by pouring beer on them from their groin areas, but he largely presents these scenes without any kind of narrative statement, letting the actions speak for themselves.

It’s all well and good for the girls until they are picked up by the police and thrown into jail for narcotics possession. After spending a night in the slammer, they are bailed out by an enigmatic rapper-gangster named Alien (James Franco).

Let’s take a minute to talk about Franco and his portrayal of Alien, for he is the axis on which the film spins. Franco catches a lot of shit for his “artiste” antics, some of which are rightly deserved. But if fair was fair, and a movie like this was truly considered by those in the know, Franco’s work would be in the conversation come Oscar time.

The character of the “wannabe” black person has been played for laughs on several occasions – here is arguably the first time you see a person who has simply adopted the elements of the culture in which he’s been immersed, without irony or the wink-wink effect of “this guy would be “white” if given the chance” (I’m looking at you “Can’t Hardly Wait”). Alien is respected in the hood, has earned his status on the streets and is considered an equal. His mentor protege scenes with real-life rapper Gucci Mane are notable in that there’s little condescension toward Alien because he’s white – it’s simply that, like any other rival, he’s moved too far into another criminal’s territory.

And Franco nails the part. Yes, it does feel like a riff on RiFF RAFF, the Houston-area rapper noted for his super-slangy speech pattern and iced-out mentality. But Franco certainly brings some of his own inherent weirdness to the role, and his “Look at my shit!” monologue is priceless in the banality of the items he worships and the enthusiasm for which he speaks of them.

Korine has a penchant for making bold statements about race, and I found it interesting that Faith doesn’t truly get upset about anything until she is surrounded by loud, forward black men, who are not entirely dissimilar to those she was just eagerly partying with a few days before her arrest, save for their skin color.

It’s also noteworthy that Candy and Brit completely tune out during a college class on Jim Crow-era segregation and later wind up in a shootout with black men – a scene that furthers the concept that “spring break” is a kind of fantastical paradise in which you can get away with anything. 

Korine cast his actresses with the implicit knowledge that the audience would have a hard time separating fact from fiction – even in the case of Cotty, who may not be a familiar face to most moviegoers, but is actually the director’s wife – and the idea that, particularly in the case of Gomez and Hudgens, they have already been sexualized to the nth degree by this point.

“Spring Breakers” is not an easy film to characterize or assess – there are myriad flaws, yet it remains a discomfiting look at youth culture, identity and sex. It’s the kind of film, that despite its surface-level title and supposed subject, that will take several viewings to fully digest.

~ by Elliott on April 11, 2013.

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