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Critical Dialogue: Spring Breakers

By Max Nelson on March 21, 2013

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Spring Breakers Harmony Korine

Sprang breeeaaak…

Sprang breeeaaak…

Sprang breeeaaak…

So drawls Alien, the deep-fried, half-baked drug dealer played by James Franco with equal parts cockiness, tenderness, horniness, and madness in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. He repeats the mantra, often over images that, as Scott Foundas puts it in The Village Voice, look like they come from “the most expensive Girls Gone Wild video ever made.” The most artistic, too—as if Terence Malick had traded sunsets and wheat fields for bikini-clad coeds, beer-soaked ragers, and consequence-free shoot-’em-ups.

Foundas calls Franco’s turn “a full-blown Method performance (with an emphasis on “meth”) that can also be seen as a knowing lampoon of Method acting.” The rest of Spring Breakers exists in that same blurry gray area between the earnest and ironic. Korine’s film—which traces the fortunes of four bored young college girls as they descend upon St. Petersburg, Florida, with a wad of stolen cash, a surplus of hormones, and some simmering psychotic tendencies—leaves us, in Foundas’s words, “uncertain whether to laugh, recoil in horror, or marvel at its strange beauty . . . It is impossible to say where exploitation ends and deconstruction begins.”

Korine treats his heroines’ misadventures at once with detached mockery and almost overzealous investment. It’s as if he can’t decide whether to condemn the proceedings as evidence for the fall of Western civilization, or give into their aggressive advances. We scoff when Selena Gomez’s appropriately named Faith calls her grandmother from the road and says with conviction that “this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been.” But by the time we witness three pink-hoodied spring breakers toting machine guns and dancing in slo-mo against sunset-tinged skies to the strains of Britney Spears’s “Everytime,” we’re ready to believe her. Almost.

Spring Breakers Harmony Korine

Writing in the March/April issue of FILM COMMENT, Michael Chaiken falls neatly on the fall-of-Western-civilization side of the spectrum. The heroines of Spring Breakers are “the fun-house-mirror reflections of the triumphant hallucinations of our culture,” its celebrity gangstas are “agents of our deepest, most perverse fantasies,” and its bloody conclusion proof that, “in the post–Girls Gone Wild era, fantasies of crime, violence, and power carry deeper resonance than endless images of topless teens screaming down the fleeting beauty of their youth.”

All of which makes Spring Breakers sound ugly. But it is also immensely enjoyable and, in its own way, beautiful; to the extent that the film is interested in communicating ugly truths, it’s effective precisely because its brand of ugliness leaves us begging for more. In her Artforum review, Amy Taubin admits to having seen the film three times so far: “not because I had to—I’d already taken enough notes to write five pieces—but because I wanted to, the way I want to hear certain albums a hundred times over.” She argues that the film’s power, not only as entertainment but as social commentary, is bound up with its seductive appeal. Korine implicates us in his brand of cheery amorality not by magnifying our guilt, but by making us forget all about it until it’s too late.

Of the film’s final scene, Taubin writes: “We find ourselves holding our breath, as if we had been sucked into an all-nighter of Grand Theft Auto where nothing mattered except picking the avatar that gets to play another day.” For Taubin, Korine immerses us so fully in his vision of American youth culture gone horribly wrong that we not only forget to be appalled—we forget that we’re even meant to be appalled. The film is so effective as a statement that it becomes something much more than a statement—or much less, depending on your tolerance for movies about the way we live today.

Spring Breakers Harmony Korine

Perhaps I’m being too hasty with the first-person plural. Time Outs Joshua Rothkopf, for one, is less go-for-broke immersed in the movie than quietly bemused. Korine, he writes, “is going for a tongue-in-cheek Statement About Our Lost Youth, and the pretension is so obvious, you want to hug him for it.” He recognizes the movie’s tonal double standard, but isn’t quite as willing to choose a side: “Alien—and Korine—tell us [that the film’s ending] is the American dream come true, and even if you resist going there with them, the have-your-cake-and-fling-it-too stupidity is breathtaking.”

It’s not clear, though, whether it’s possible to arrive at a truly neutral stance on Spring Breakers—even Rothkopf’s arm’s-length admiration seems constantly teetering on the edge of love. It’s a film that demands that you take a stand while at the same time making it nearly impossible to do so. But a stand on what? Youth? Modernity? Hedonism? Korine’s delirious, over-stimulating (and over-stimulated) visual style suggests all of the above. Maybe it boils down to a question Taubin poses mid-review: “Can a movie be too colorful to swallow?” You would think so, but Spring Breakers might just give you pause. 

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