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Spring Breakers

#514 - Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine, 2012

Four female college students go to Florida for spring break.

"The trouble with being avant-garde is knowing who's putting on who."
- Calvin, Calvin and Hobbes

That quote sums up the main quandary I have when I try to organise my thoughts about Spring Breakers. It's not like I'm much of a fan of Harmony Korine's films in the first place - he did little to endear me to his sensibilities with the trailer-trash slice-of-life that is Gummo or the incredibly dysfunctional family dramedy of Julien Donkey-Boy. On the surface, Spring Breakers looks like another of Korine's attempts to provide a portrait of a sub-culture without projecting any judgment in the form of explicit condemnation or satirisation. Of course, this results in it appearing to be exactly the kind of vapid celebration of mindless millennial hedonism (as evidenced by the opening montage of alcohol-fuelled nudity with Skrillex playing in the background) that is taken to an incredible extreme by its characters. After setting up its lead quartet of college-aged female students (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) and demonstrating their boredom with lectures and classes, the film then depicts three members of the group carrying out an armed robbery at a restaurant in order to acquire the funds necessary to head to spring break. After enough of a party-hearty montage has passed, the group are arrested for some reason and then bailed out by a gangsta rapper (James Franco) who decides to take them under his heavily tattooed wing for the remainder of spring break.

I probably would not have given this film a chance if not for certain sub-sections of cinema fans selling it as some kind of subversive masterpiece that will probably come to provide a definitive portrait of this generation in the same way that films like Rebel Without a Cause or Easy Rider came to define earlier youth cultures. To a certain extent, I can see how this would appear to be the case. The leads of Spring Breakers may be nigh-indistinguishable, but that seems to become irrelevant since the group tends to function as a singular unit that only starts to break down under the influence of Franco, whose access to lots of drugs and guns (plus his weirdly friendly demeanour) definitely makes him an alternately appealing and frightening figure. There's also the natural escalation of the women seeking greater and greater highs - when sex and drugs lose their thrill, where else do you go but to straight-up criminal behaviour such as robbery and murder? That's without taking into account the film's distinctive visual style, which seems to combine influences from both Nicholas Winding Refn and Terrence Malick as it mixes gaudy neon-soaked lighting with free-floating camerawork and ponderous narration. If nothing else, that at least makes the film worth watching as the interplay of different colours and the film's bizarre editing serve to make it distinctive in that regard and are inventive enough to make sure that I don't write off the film completely.

Of course, that doesn't stop the film being as boring and underwritten as hell. Gomez's character is the only one that gets anything remotely resembling an arc and any remotely sufficient definition as the brunette Christian girl who does want to escape her repressive lifestyle but still finds herself discomforted by the actions that her friends take throughout the film. The other three are pretty much interchangeable as they start to embrace not just spring break culture but also the exciting life of crime offered by Franco, whose turn as a rapper/gangster is not nearly as weird or charming as the film would have you think. Ironically, as the film develops more of a plot it seems to become even less engaging. Granted, you could make the case that Spring Breakers is no different to something like The Tree of Life or Drive in how it takes seemingly banal subject matter and grants it serious artistic merit through vivid cinematography, portentous dialogue and narration, unconventional editing choices, and so forth. Unfortunately, all the day-glo colour palettes, slow-motion montages, and free-associating voice-overs aren't enough to seriously redeem just how downright obnoxious the film ends up being. Boldness only goes so far, and even then it doesn't go even halfway towards making this film feel remotely worthwhile. Whether the film is satirising its insipid cast of characters or reveling in their increasingly illegal activities ends up being surprisingly irrelevant. I don't know whether or not expecting this to be a misunderstood gem makes that much of a difference, but I can't imagine it would be a positive one.