‘Spring Breakers’ and the Fine Art of Cinematic Free Association

It starts with a scene of two young college girls, bored out of their minds. Sitting in one of those arena like classrooms, the teacher projecting everything they’ll need to know as part of a high tech Power Point presentation, they contemplate the next few days. “I need penis,” one writes in her spiral notebook. The other, drawing a rather large phallus in hers, mimes fellatio. As their fellow students sit back, dead eyed, these two twitter and tweak like a couple of sex starved meth birds. We soon learn that they are anticipating a road trip to St. Petersburg, Florida, a chance to pal around with two other female chums while drinking and drugging their way to some equally inebriated frat boy’s motel room. After that…well, anything goes.

It is pure Harmony Korine and this is his monumental motion picture achievement, Spring Breakers. A clever combination of MTV, sordid social commentary, and couture crime spree, this masterpiece of a film, following closely behind the director’s disturbing, defiant Trash Humpers, does one of the greatest jobs of dissecting post-post modern youth culture ever. It’s divisive and defiant, like an arched middle finger flipped directly at those who thought they’d have this man’s motives figured out. After all, this is the guy who scripted the controversial Larry Clark films Kids and Ken Park. Within the sun bleached setting, this should be nothing more than a delicate balance between softcore sleaze and adolescent porn.

Instead, what Korine has created becomes an artistic Rorschach test, the kind of experience that allows you to read things into the subject while simultaneously experiencing what the filmmaker finds fascinating. In this case, he gives us a quartet of girls, each one embodying a certain level of “screw you” dedication. First up are the sex-starved Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine). They offer up the typical view of post-adolescent perversity. To them, everything is a drug – their lame comic asides, the possibility of anonymous hook-ups, even crime. Then there is their hang-on gal pal Brit (Ashley Benson). She’s borderline between her freakish female friends and the real world.

The most surprising inclusion, however, is Faith (Selena Gomez), a Bible thumping innocent who wants nothing more than to turn Spring Break into a permanent vacation. She is tired of her dull and boring (and by implication, oppressive) home life and prays that a trip to Florida with her mates will turn fantasy into a reality. She’s not phased by the drinking and the drugs. She’s even game for some of the sex. What she doesn’t expect is the mid-movie turn when things go from long necks and libido to cops and robbers – or better, rappers. Faith is the first to see trouble arriving in cornrows and mouth grills. She’s also the only member of the foursome to escape the influence, and infection of her slick Southern savior.

His name is Alien. Played by James Franco, he is the prototypical white wannabe, a ghetto-fied goon who wants nothing more than to smoke blunts, shoot guns, and seduce the young girls who come calling to his particular 727 area code. We first see him onstage, spitting out rhymes, mesmerizing the future degree holders with his hapless hood heroics. After our heroines are arrested, Alien shows up like a villain out of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. He offers his help. He offers understanding. He’s simpatico. Everyone more or less accepts. Then Faith finds the flaw in his charming gentleman drawl. She wants out…and surprisingly, gets it. From then on, it’s a slow decent into a break more broken than springy.

As a test of how far someone’s antisocial behavior can go, as a reflection on the fact that we seem to be raising entire generations of immoral, hedonistic psychopaths, Spring Breakers cuts right to the heart of the horror. It asks the simple question – is violence the next logical step in someone’s desire to cut loose and rebel against mom and dad? The answer comes in a Scarface inspired finale where – no spoilers here – Alien tries to settle the beef he has with a former friend and mentor. Before then, however, he goes on a wild interpersonal rant where “Look at my sheet-yat” becomes the catchphrase for a whole new blank generation.

Among other things, Korine seems to be saying that today’s youth have no boundaries because we live in a society which doesn’t demand or create same. The judge sentencing our ladies lets them off with a fine, chalking their adventures up to the typical rite of passage pranks. All throughout the film, public nudity is condoned – and even encouraged – within the confines of the two week binge. There are no authority figures, Alien being the closest we come to a voice of anything remotely close to responsibility or reason, and his methodology it the hustle, not hitting the books. Even more sobering is the message of emotionless disengagement. In order to take the trip, the girls commit armed robbery (with a liquor filled water pistol) and have NO PROBLEM DOING SO.

Of course, the consequence of such a beginning is expanded upon in the end, given gun powder potency by Korine’s desire to move from self indulgence to antisocial outbursts. Wrapped up in a hypnotic soundtrack which recalls a heartbeat muffled by too many bong hits, we are treated to the decline of Western civilization as a music video homage to Tarantino and DePalma. Even Ms. Brittany gets her movie moment as one of her ballads backs a terrifying look at the crimes which started it all. From its lost in liquid joy approach to a narrative that plays like a goofy gansta mantra, Spring Breakers defeats any expectations that this would merely be Korine copping to Kids, figuratively or literally. Instead, it’s one of 2013’s great films, a movie to free associate on for days and days. And as one fellow critic put it, the sadness lingers longer than anything else on display.