Fun loving college girls Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are eager to head down to Florida for spring break but discover they haven’t enough money. Without Faith’s knowledge, the other girls grab some guns, don masks and rob a fast-food restaurant. Flush with cash the girls party hardy along the sunny beaches and pools with a string of sex, drug and booze fuelled misadventures that go awry when they wind up in jail. Whereupon they are unexpectedly bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a notorious local DJ with criminal aspirations, who steers their spring break adventure down a darker path.
Quite ingeniously shot to resemble an MTV promo for a reality television special about college girls gone wild, Spring Breakers adopts a stylistic technique not too different from The Bling Ring (2013) with which it shares some thematic similarities. Both films adopt the perspective of their hedonistic young protagonists and set out neither to condemn nor condone but instead invite viewers to voyeuristically share their illicit thrills towards a greater understanding. Yet whereas Sofia Coppola’s approach was psychological, Harmony Korine’s is visceral. Spring Breakers is as much a gonzo exploitation romp as it is a day-glo satire of contemporary trash culture’s glorification of excess and blurring of the line between criminal and celebrity.
Given that spring break as a rite of passage is a concept integral to American culture with its celebration of youth, freedom and the pursuit of happiness, aspects of the film ruminate on the possible corruption of this ideal. The presence of former Disney princesses Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens add a layer of subtext in line with this theme as indeed does the now infamous sequence wherein Alien leads the masked gun-toting girls in a sing-along chorus of “Everytime”, a song made famous by that ultimate American sweetheart gone sour, Britney Spears. Although Hudgens grubs up convincingly alongside achingly lovely Pretty Little Liars star Ashley Benson (at one point sharing a poolside threesome with James Franco), Gomez does not stray too far from her wholesome image as quiet, religious Faith and exits the story quite early on. Yet it is her character who articulates the central malaise: that need for new sensations, new thrills, teenage kicks. Just as writer-actress Lena Dunham remarked on her hit television show Girls, these young women continually do the wrong thing, make terrible life choices, but it makes them feel alive.
As the screenwriter of Kids (1996) Harmony Korine was part guilty of some heavy-handed moralising. There is less of it here, tempered with a strange but not un-affecting form of acid spirituality. While Korine stands guilty of fixating on nubile young flesh, given the subject matter that seems all but unavoidable. He actually fashions this audio-visual assault of blaring techno, sun-kissed beach bodies, booze and bouncing boobs into a near transcendental experience, a stream-of-consciousness Bacchanalian tone poem almost akin to a Terrence Malick prosthelytizing on coke and ecstasy. Faith misinterprets her spring break adventure as a spiritual awakening and to a degree misjudges her friends but Korine’s sympathies lie with her, a poet-idealist searching for profundity both within and beyond mere sensation. In that sense she is not too different from a typical Malick protagonist. The girls might be the film’s reckless heart but its revving engine is undoubtedly James Franco in a performance kick-starting what would prove to be a vintage year for the actor. Franco is hilarious as Alien ("Bikinis and big booties, ya'll, that's what life is all about!"), an inspired send-up of white gangsta wannabes, a posturing doofus out of his depth. We assume Alien is a shark out to eat up our yummy anti-heroines but things play out in deliciously unexpected fashion.