TIFF 2012: ‘Spring Breakers’ equal parts sublime, trashy, and monotonous
In a way, Spring Breakers doesn’t need to actually exist as a genuine film for its point to have been made: that happened a couple of months ago, when Entertainment Tonight shot an excitable behind-the-scenes segment on the film, excitedly interviewing its three high-profile young starlets (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Ashley Benson), who teased their less-than-model behavior in the film and boasted of the awesome sensation of holding a gun, while the never-named director hung around in the periphery. In two minutes flat, Harmony Korine had a bizarro-universe sizzle reel to be proud of: the enfant terrible of American independent film had wormed his way into the most mainstream outlet imaginable.
But not only is Spring Breakers real, as it turns out, it’s also every bit as subversive, funny, and unique as its premise and cast would indicate. Unfortunately, not unlike Korine’s “found-footage” nightmare Trash Humpers, it also belabors its themes of American corruption and decadence long past the point of exhaustion. After a Girls Gone Wild-style opening, complete with raucous Skrillex accompaniment, we meet a quartet of restless small-town girls eager to escape and head to Florida for spring break: Faith (Gomez), Brit (Benson), Candy (Hudgens) and Cotty (Korine’s wife Rachel). To the shock and surprise of churchgoing Faith, the other three girls violently rob a chicken shack, complete with balaclavas, in order to raise the funds for the trip. Undeterred, she joins them for what is at first a relatively innocent marathon of teenaged debauchery: alcohol, cocaine, questionable run-ins with scantily clad fratboys. That changes when, following an arrest, they’re bailed out and befriended by a drug dealer/”rapper” named Alien (a ludicrously grill’d and cornrowed James Franco, doing his best Kenny Powers impersonation), who has them in mind for considerably grander misdeeds.
Korine clearly relishes the idea of sullying the reputation of his tween-pop leads at least as much as their characters long for escape from college-town drudgery, which lends the early stretch of the film a narcotized glee. Just as the stunned euphoria starts to wane, Franco’s outlandish turn once again injects the movie with outré gravitas, a silver-mouthed devil who’s neither as dumb as he looks nor half as clever as he imagines. What once again causes attention to flag isn’t the threadbare plot nor the equally thin characters, but Korine’s editing style, which insists on repeating every even semi-significant bit of dialogue and imagery six or seven times, slightly before and slightly after they occur within the film’s linear timeline. Doubtless, it’s an effect meant to heighten the film’s sense of atmosphere. but it grows incredibly tiresome over 92 minutes.
What really keeps Spring Breakers from being the trashy pop-art masterpiece Korine clearly aspires to is the limited nature of any social commentary you might care to gleam from it. The “American dream” is cited out loud at least twice; spring break is framed as a kind of religious experience (Franco brays “sprang brayk” seemingly hundreds of times), not-so-subtly juxtaposed against Gomez praying in a church group; slo-mo and smeared primary colors do their best to make young girls doing lines off of the bare breasts of strangers appear like a moment of great import for all involved. Carefree antics brush up against a violent last act worthy of Gregg Araki. The union of high and low concepts and culture becomes familiar to the point of banality by the film’s midway point, with only a late-film montage set to the entirety of Britney Spears’s “Everytime” living up to the promise of a truly grotesque, classless spectacle of horrors worthy of timeless preservation a la Showgirls. If the intended result is to keep Hudgens and co. out of Disney productions in perpetuity, mission accomplished; otherwise, Spring Breakers feels like slightly more than a curiosity but slightly less than a complete vision.