I’m willing to forgive you if, when you hear the title Spring Breakers, you just assume it’s the latest all-American Hangover-inspired teen sex and drugs party orgy with schlumby male leads eager to make a name for themselves as Risky Business types. If you’re looking for a slice of that pie, you’re in the wrong place, but maybe you should hang around anyway. You might learn something. Because Spring Breakers won’t look anything like those treasured memories you have from your spring break.
Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) dream of the perfect spring break — one filled with drunken parties and hook-ups that, much like Vegas fantasies, will remain left behind in Florida when the kids head back to school — but they have to be able to get there first. These four have been best friends for as long as they can remember and are willing to do whatever it takes to make the trip together. Time for a bright idea, right? Well, petty robbery gets the girls down to the beach, and the fun really begins. Nights of binge drinking and living out the MTV-approved scenes of debauchery, captured like mythic snapshots for the ages, taps into the sensationalistic exploitation we’ve come to expect from the post-millennial generation.
Writer-director Harmony Korine (writer-actor in 1995’s Kids) captures the seedy aspect of this spring break on crank and somehow makes it feel like a distaff update of the otherworldly vibe of William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. spliced with some of Paul Schrader’s 1970s work (think of his gritty approach to Taxi Driver or Blue Collar).
And there’s truly some spiritual link between Spring Breakers and Blue Collar, with its group of autoworkers who ban together to steal from the union that each has come to feel has started to screw them. From the amateurish shuffle of the crew to the divisions and alliance-forming dynamics that emerge, the college girls learn in much the same way as Schrader’s working-class stiffs. But this being the new millennium, where, thanks to reality television and the like, the thrills are more accessible and thrilling, it isn’t long before they graduate from the petty shenanigans to master’s- and doctorate-level criminality.
Their graduate advisor is a pimped-out rapper-cum-criminal named Alien (James Franco), an Eminem-inspired street professor who bails the girls out when things go wrong and they end up in jail. It’s a classic scam where he covers bail/court fees and the girls owe him, with interest. But these girls, well, they happen to be fast learners and there’s a delicious moment when Alien comes to realize that truth. Primal sensuality and violent sex play create a stunning role reversal that triggers a transition for the girls from boy toys into cocked and loaded weapons. The expression on Franco’s face is worth the price of admission because he sees the powerful potential in them and while there’s a hint of fear, he’s stupid enough to think he can control them.
Fortunately, Korine’s smarter than Alien, and the story just lets them run amok. There’s an actual plot and well-defined structure in place (nothing earth-shatteringly novel), but everything proceeds as if it’s just running on drug-induced adrenaline. The action sequences have a raw and ragged edge with splattered beauty and the girls, primarily roaming about in bikinis, are not simply sexualized objects (although there certainly is that element to them). Their appearance refers back to that moment with Alien, except now, the audience is in his position and we come to see them punishing us for our own leering and need to objectify them.
In interviews, Korine has talked about how there’s a sense of purity in his intentions, which absolves him of questions regarding how the result might seem exploitative. It is a bold argument, even in light of the fact that he cast his own wife as one of the spring break girls, but I’m willing to go with him, to a point. Where he loses me is in his portrayal of Gomez’s character Faith. She’s the good girl, the one who attends prayer group meetings during the initial petty stuff and phones home to reassure her grandmother that she’s all right and enjoying herself, but she’s not. Faith is the one false-note in the whole trip because she feels like a cliché or a narrative device. Every other character, no matter what you think about them, is alive in every single moment. Viva, Spring Breakers! (Opens at The Esquire Friday) (R) Grade: B+ (tt stern-enzi)