Girls Gone Gangsta

‘Spring Breakers’

Spring Breakers has attracted a fair amount of buzz, but it’s an uneasy buzz. The initial scenes—with the camera fixed on the boobs and butts of adolescent girls gyrating on Florida beaches, saluting the skies with beer cans, the beer sloshing down over their chins, chests, and bare midriffs—provoke the question: Is this just a big-screen version of Girls Gone Wild? But then writer-director Harmony Korine cuts away to silent, vacated dorm rooms and the sudden hush seems like an authorial reproach to the riot on the sands. Next we’re in a dim lecture hall with a teacher expounding the post–World War II reconstruction of Europe while one of our heroines-to-be giggles with a pal and draws penises in her notebook. Is this a smart-alecky swipe at the instructor’s earnestness or a reproach to unworthy American youth who will never reconstruct any country, including their own? Glimpses of an on-campus Christian prayer meeting add more ambiguity: Is the over-the-top enthusiasm for Jesus a salvation road unheeded by the beach bacchants or is it merely another way of blowing off steam, neither more nor less mindless than a beer bash? Spring Breakers doesn’t have the single-mindedness of porn or reality TV, and for that, I suppose, we should be grateful.

Three girls—Candy, Brit, and Cotty—realize they don’t have enough money for the spring revels, and so decide to knock over a fast-food joint. So we’re in an action movie? But what kind of action movie stages a holdup this way: as Candy and Brit execute the robbery, the camera stays on Cotty in the getaway car as she drives around to the exit to pick up the others after they’ve finished the job. The close-up shot keeps Cotty in the foreground but also lets us see the robbery through the restaurant’s windows in the background. Their thick glass cuts off all sound as the amateur bandits wave water pistols and smash furniture with hammers. Somehow the silence amplifies the violence and makes it more frightening, as if we’re watching a grotesque ballet spinning out of control. Apparently we’re in the hands of an artful moviemaker, but where is his art leading us?

The three thieves and their much more innocent pal Faith join other students on a bus headed to Florida, and soon there’s beer guzzling, sexual teasing, wave surfing, and motel-room wrecking. Inevitably, the cops descend. Unable to pay a fine, our heroines face several weeks in jail until they’re sprung by a drug-dealing would-be rapper named Alien (played by James Franco, whose wacky costume, including cornrows and metal teeth, reminded me of Sacha Baron Cohen’s even wackier Ali G). Alien carries them all off to his pad for private revelry. The situation seems riper than ever for moralistic melodrama or soft porn or some combination of the two.

But here’s what’s odd about Spring Breakers: Both melodrama and porn require a certain grittiness of texture, but Korine’s filmmaking evokes the mystical. In fact, with its elliptical editing, odd jumps in chronology, and disjunctions of sound and image (we see carousing while we hear the plaintive sighs of the jailed girls), the film’s style recalls Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. In both films, we hear the characters repeating certain phrases over and over on the soundtrack. “Why is this happening to us? This wasn’t supposed to happen,” Korine’s heroines keep asking. But Tree of Life employs such devices to meditate dreamily on the human condition, to delve beneath surfaces and get at the thoughts, yearnings, and fantasies of its characters. The disjunctions and repetitions are intended to communicate a sense of spiritual life. What has spiritual life got to do with Korine’s spring breakers, with their vacuous faces, toneless voices, clichéd babblings, and affectless sexuality?

To be sure, one of his protagonists is different from the others. Faith (and of course the name isn’t randomly chosen) is innocent of the robbery and appalled when she hears about it. And unlike the actresses Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine (the director’s wife), whose features are exploited for their creamy blankness, Selena Gomez, the pop singer who plays Faith, is allowed to project a variety of emotions—doubt, fear, curiosity, amusement, anticipation—all of which the actress manages with touching naturalness. There’s a life being lived behind her eyes. The other three might as well be digital avatars. They form a sort of combine of lovely amorality from which Faith stands apart, apprehensive and wavering, afraid to join them but also afraid to reject them. Does this mean that Faith, who exhibits some sign of moral agency, is the real protagonist of the movie? And, if so, shouldn’t the real drama of Spring Breakers hinge on her decision either to sink with her friends or to escape from them?

Well, maybe in another director’s movie, but not in Harmony Korine’s. Faith’s destiny is almost immediately resolved. Her plea to Alien to let her return home falls on surprisingly sympathetic ears: he puts her on a bus and tenderly promises that he’ll be thinking of her while enjoying the favors of her friends. So the only character most viewers will empathize with is safe and out of the story. Only then does Korine begin to reveal the function of all those dreamy voice-overs and counterpoints between frenzied images and languorous narration. While Malick uses those techniques to explore inner life, Korine uses them to signal to viewers that he is taking them into his own fantasy world, not his characters’. The final sequences of Spring Breakers will make no sense at all to any viewer expecting that minimal resemblance to reality that even the most conventional crime or action movie clings to. In this film, Korine shows no interest in the elements most dramatists and directors deploy to create drama: moral choice, reversals of fortune, exertions or surrenders of will, and everything else that promotes character development. Perhaps Alien’s unexpected kindness to Faith could be taken as a moral gesture, but it turns out to be more of a plot expedient than evidence of character development. With Faith safely out of the story, Korine is free to bring his heroines to a very peculiar apotheosis.

Armed with guns from Alien’s considerable stockpile and wearing stocking masks, our heroines go on a crime spree with the rapper. They haven’t really changed; they’ve simply returned to the delight in criminality they discovered while committing the fast-food robbery. Only now they use real weapons and seriously injure victims without the least remorse. And when a rival drug dealer wounds Cotty, Alien and the other girls invade the enemy’s compound and, though Alien is slain immediately, Brit and Candy, with virtually no training in weapons, shoot down the rival and his dozen bodyguards with an ease and accuracy that James Bond would envy. Do the bodyguards not shoot back? Of course they do, but, though they are gangsta to the max, none of their bullets can find its mark. What supernatural protection hovers over Candy and Brit? Korine’s dream life. This director is visually gifted, but he uses his skills to conjure images of beautiful, vapid women in violent action because these sights titillate him and he counts on our being similarly turned on. So these supposedly ordinary American college girls become furies, better looking than the Eumenides but just as impervious to human suffering. And while the Greek monsters pursued unpunished criminals in the name of justice, these girls eliminate gangsters simply because it feels cool. Or because Harmony Korine thinks it looks cool.

He does take a stab at sociology when he has the girls tell one another just before their first robbery, “Pretend it’s a video game.” Ah yes, here’s the dulling of the moral sense by means of virtual reality. But Spring Breakers itself carries no more dramatic weight than a video game, since its characters (excepting Faith) are mere confections. By contrast, the French film L’Appat (Fresh Bait), directed by Bertrand Tavernier in 1995, which contains situations similar to Spring Breakers, engages the emotions and has moral weight even when extreme violence makes it hard to watch. Its young criminals immediately convince us of their reality, so we are appalled when the media unreality clouding their minds permits them to commit atrocities. Spring Breakers isn’t Girls Gone Wild. It’s just a director’s whim gone ballistic.

Published in the 2013-05-17 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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