Last weekend I went to the theater to check out the critically acclaimed, semi-controversial, and seemingly provocative Spring Breakers to see what the fuss was about. For those of you who aren’t familiar; Spring Breakers is the movie that is taking former Disney child stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens and taking their career in a more deviant direction. After seeing this movie I actually wrestled with what I had just watched for a couple of days;discovering that despite the surface level sex, drugs, and partying, the movie is filled with some interesting commentary that blurs the lines between celebration and criticism of Spring Break hedonism. This is not a review as much as it is just some of my thoughts on what was going on and why this movie is not the complete and utter garbage it appears to be.
Topless dance parties on the beach showered in various types of beer, cocaine snorted off of flesh, bank robberies, and gang shootouts. Spring Break. These are just a few examples of what is unapologetically demonstrated in this movie, and it was so heavy at times that I questioned whether or not I should leave the theater as the movie seemed to shatter my generally high tolerance for such things. BUT I didn’t leave the movie, and I sat through the discomfort, and when the credits rolled, I was speechless. No, not speechless because what I thought the movie was that terrible, but speechless because I was attempting to understand what director Harmony Korine was trying to get out with his movie that was both in love with, but also discontent with the philosophy behind our society’s longing for Spring Break.
Here’s the set up; Faith(Selena Gomez), Candy(Vanessa Hudgens), Brit(Ashley Benson), and Cotty(director’s wife Rachel Korine) are all sick of their monotonous lives as college students. They all want to experience something new so they pull their money together in hopes that they can have enough money to go down to Florida for break. When they realize they don’t have near enough money, three of them go and rob a chicken restaurant to get all the money they’ll need. Sure enough, they get away with it and make their way down to the party. While there they drink, party, have sex, and talk about rediscovering who they are on their trip. Eventually things go sour when they get into a massive party filled with beer, an orgy(?), and drugs. The four of them get arrested, and when they go to their hearing(in which they are still in bikinis funny enough) they are charged guilty. In a stroke of luck(or maybe disaster) they are bailed out by a rapper/gangster named Alien(James Franco) who is essentially the ultimate spring breaker, the man whose lives for that feeling. The four begin hanging out with him only to find out that he is into some pretty dangerous business.
The first half of the movie isn’t heavy on plot, but instead focuses on the crazy Spring Break parties most of us think of; i.e. something out of a Girl’s Gone Wild flick. The movie lavishes in random shots of different people partying on the beach with no inhibitions; it is the purest form of dirty pleasure where nobody cares and unadulterated fun is all they seek. These scenes are played over and over throughout the movie to the point that it gets annoying. At times I thought that this movie was clinging to its over use of boobs like the Tea Party clings to gun rights, but eventually I came to realize there was a point to the overzealous use of the over-sexualized partiers.
It is during these scenes that we also see the main characters develop into thrill seekers as they are constantly looking for a bigger party, more guys, and new drugs to try. As the movie progresses we actually see that Faith comes from an evangelical background that leads to her being(more/less) the moral compass of the group. As the other three continue to become more and more destructive, Faith blinds herself to many of their new-found violent tenancies. After the four are arrested, it is Faith who seems uneasy about Alien, and before long she eventually calls it quits and goes home early. Once the moral compass that anchors the movie is gone the gloves really come off and the movie shifts from a topless beach party to an unnerving psychological character study about girls getting in with gangsters.
The movie explores Spring Break and not only what it is as a temporarily hedonistic ritual that we do every year, but in the latter half of the movie looks at the dark side of all the fun which is revealed through the three remaining girls who get in deep with the absolutely seductively charming, dumb, but ultimately dangerous Alien. Alien is a man who claims that he gave up on doing the “right things” when he was very young as he always felt great about doing the “bad things”. He was kicked out of school and got mixed in with the drug trade, and now runs an apparently thriving business with it. He lives for pleasure, thrill seeking, and the unpredictability that spring break offers to people every year. The difference is that this mindset is the way he lives his life. What is crazy, stupid, and once in a lifetime fun for most spring breakers is a life long pursuit for Alien. At his core he is the heart of what Spring Break(or as Alien says “Sprang Brake Foeva!) is all about.
The girls begin pushing the boundaries with Alien and the more thrills they seek together, the more and more you start to realize that these girls are becoming borderline sociopaths. They begin threatening each other with loaded weapons, they shoot up and rob places for fun, and eventually they even threaten(seduce?) Alien into sucking on the barrel of a gun as if he were pleasuring a man(a scene that was both incredibly uncomfortable and darkly hilarious). It is this form of seeking new and dangerous experiences that slowly changes these girls from average college students into the next Eric Harris and Dylan Klenbold.
As the movie comes to a close, these girls go into one last shooting with Alien as he seeks to take out his oldest friend and biggest rival in the drug business. After the incident they each call their mothers, describing the trip as “out of this world”, “life changing”, and “a trip I’ll never forget”. In the same conversations they also seem to come to the realization that the lives they’ve been living are terrible as one girl says “I just want to be good, better. After all, that’s what life is about, right? Being a better person”. As the credits roll we are left to wonder if they go back to their same monotonous lives, or if what they have seen and done will bleed into their real lives.
Based on my viewing of the movie, I think this movie is actually saying and doing quite a bit to display exactly why our culture loves the idea of Spring Break, but also why it is an idea or ritual that is actually quite destructive to us as human beings. This movie makes no bones about celebrating the fun that these people are having at their topless beach parties; they look happy, they look drunk, and most of all they look like they are having the time of their lives….at least on the surface. This movie does not discard the potential pleasure, but also peels back the layers and looks at the costs of these behaviors, both psychologically and as a society. These hot spots in Florida where people gather every year become a breeding ground for all sorts of insanity that consumes people and who they are. The movie insinuates that the same college students who are looking for a good time are just as likely to fall victim to violence and other behaviors that society deems unacceptable.
At the end of the day I think the basic idea is that this inherent urge inside of all of us to escape, to find dangerous excitement and pleasure, or to rediscover ourselves in an unhealthy place has potential to be very dangerous even if we don’t expect it….after all Faith, Candy, Brit, and Cotty were’t looking to get in with the drug trade, but they arrived there after becoming bored with just drugs, alcohol, and normal deviancy. This movie may look like good trashy fun on the surface(and make no mistake, the movie is both dirty and hilarious), but beneath it all I think we are looking at a very dark criticism of America’s young society that has become obsessed with escaping to a world without rules or boundaries where literally anything goes.
I’ve got to applaud writer/director Harmony Korine for making such a surprisingly layered movie. I am only honing in on a couple of aspects that this movie covers, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that is hits on all sorts of different issues and ideas that are floating around out there. Lastly, I can’t deny that James Franco was excellent in this movie; he played the machine gun wielding, Britney Spears loving(I didn’t even mention the sequence with the Grand Piano), and drug hustling white gangster in a way that only he could have played. The guy looked like he was having the time of his life on this job, and it made the movie worth some laughs among all the heavier stuff.
So kids….. the moral of the story is…..fantasies about escaping your life to a life filled with danger, thrills, and crime isn’t exactly a healthy thing….who knew? Spring Break