[25 March 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It was already poised to be a love/hate kind of experience. After all, the director, Harmony Korine, has been responsible for some of the most controversial (Kids, Ken Park) and head scratching (Trash Humpers) efforts in the last 20 years. As a screenwriter, he guided Larry Clark’s softcore slices of burned out youth culture, while his own directing duties have championed the outcasts and the unusual. Now comes his chance to cinematically ‘deflower’ a few of the teen idol babes from the House of Mouse/Nick at Nite school of celebrity. Spring Breakers, his artistically arresting view of the annual college ritual of excessive hedonism has made little impact at the box office ($5 million in less than 1000 theaters), but it’s definitely stirring some (often silly) debate.
First up are the people who are pissed that Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place) and Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) are trashing their good girl image for the sake of a motion picture make-over. Parents have cried foul, considering their inability to tell their entitled wee ones that something featuring their favorite Disney Channel stars is actually a hard “R” experience, outside their still maturing frame of reference. As with all feelings of false privilege, these adults are mad because, unlike the product that’s perpetrated by Walt’s World of cross-promotional marketing, everything about these two young starlets is not readily and instantly consumable by their whining minors.
As with all attempts to grow up, these girls have taken a calculated risk. After all, their careers are based on a brain dead wholesomeness that relieves most guardians of their need to provide insight and instruction. You can plop your five year old down in front of the electronic babysitter and never once worry that Hannah Montana or iCarly is going to suddenly start swearing and/or snort cocaine off a semi-naked frat boy’s jock strap. But unless they were living under the proverbial clueless post-modern mother or father rock, the trailers and ads have made it very clear that this was no ‘G’ or ‘PG’ romp. Instead, Spring Breakers argued for its aggressive stance with images of alcohol, bouncing beach bodies…and most importantly, violence.
Then there are those who are angry with Korine for concentrating on women. They are flying the Feminist flag, believing that Spring Breakers shows young girls in the worst possible light while absolving most of the males in the movie. Of course, this doesn’t include the “exploitative” Alien, a zombified Zen white rapper whose sly Southern drawl hides a Tony Montana level of powder keg potential. Apparently, this character gets a pass because (a) he’s a bit of a buffoon, no matter his criminal ties and (b) he acts as the serpent to the gals Garden of Eden exploration of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Without him - and by inference, men like him - these lovelies (sorry, not trying to be sexist) would never have fallen down this particular sundrenched rabbit hole.
They go on to point out problems right up front. Two of the girls flaunt their fevered sexuality, each one pantomiming their love of the male genitals and oral sex. It’s old school sleaze, in their book. Later on, when they want in on Alien’s lifestyle, they use lust and libido to drive him toward his (possible) destruction. Again, a woman lowering herself to a preconceived role. Oddly enough, to go back to the previous point, Gomez gets to play the voice of reason in Spring Breakers. Her character, appropriately named Faith, finds everything about Alien creepy and disturbing. She does not trust him at all. So she gets to leave (spoiler alert???) and head back to college with only a mild run-in with the law and a massive pile of eye scales in her wake. Sadly, the same can’t be said for Zac’s main song and dance squeeze.
By making it a gender issue, those attacking Spring Breakers miss the point. For many, the lunkheaded lameness of the male experience (horn dog driven inappropriateness, inebriated Jackass joking) has been done. Those movies were made back when Reagan rocked the White House. If anything, Korine wants to argue that it’s the same for girls. They have the same needs, the same naughty desires. They want the bong hit path to fun and sun, with just the right amount of beer and body shots thrown in for good measure. Even at the end, when Alien gives our remaining ladies the chance to choose between right and wrong, they make the same post-adolescent mistakes that guys do. If anything, Spring Breakers is empowering in that it doesn’t reduce their roles to mere eye candy or objects de sex .
Still, the criticism continues, with the newest angle being the Project X comparisons. You remember that horrific film from last year, a tale of three teen age high school boys who basically destroy an entire suburban block of other people’s property so they can have the biggest, bestest, underage alcohol-aided rave in the history of their small sphere of influence. Upon its release, some warned of copycat concerns. Sure enough, the impressionable youth that this film was marketed to went about mimicking its antisocial antics, proving that, in some cases, movie monkey see will easily equal minor monkey do. Well, there are a few in the critical community lamenting the fact that some in their membership are praising Korine and his girl-ccentric version of unbridled debauchery while taking producer Todd Phillips to task for his man-boy predecessor.
Of course, said contrast is massively flawed. It’s like arguing the difference between hardcore and softcore pornography. Project X portrays its geek heroes as outcasts looking to liven up their dull, desperate lives. The conclusion they come to in order to aid their homerun profile is to invite the entire town to a house party, ply them with booze and bad DJ-ing, and then watch their reputation run rampant. It’s a public display of peer pressure - with puking. The girls of Spring Breakers just want release. They want escape. They are bored in college and with their button down home lives and think that partaking in this annual ritual will provide them the fantasy fulfillment they require. They’re not creating the scene, they are merely invited and/or attending. Even worse, they question their choices. The guys of Project X want to push the limits. In Spring Breakers, only a couple of heroines feel said need - and when they do, it’s not so safe.
Besides, Korine’s artistic flourished (slo-mo shoot outs, the brilliant use of Britney Spears’ “Everytime”) argue against any similarities to the aforementioned toxic teen comedy. Age may not mean much, but 20 year old girls get a bit more leeway in the lines of ridiculous reasoning than 17 year old guys increasing their parent’s insurance premiums. More importantly, Spring Breakers is like that classic 1678 proto-novel The Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s Dante’s Inferno where every layer of Hell is another recreational pharmaceutical, where every day-glo gimmick is another Satanic step. In the end, our guides either give up, get out, or give in. As with any entertainment, opinions will vary and are always uniquely individual. Love it or hate it, Spring Breakers is not what you think. It’s also not what the naysayers are struggling to suggest.