SXSW 2013 Review: ‘Spring Breakers’ Is…

By  · Published on March 13th, 2013

Spring Breakers…is not the film people are expecting. Even cinephiles familiar with Harmony Korine’s polarizing nature will be taken aback by the man’s newest creation. For one thing, it’s Korine’s most entertaining film to date, and “fun” isn’t exactly his forte. His usual strength is his willingness to write reprehensible people, and here, he shows them off with blinding neon lights, particularly James Franco sporting corn rows and a higher energy than he’s ever attempted before. Korine has made a movie about one of the scariest, funniest, and most subversive vacations in recent memory.

The vacation involves four college girls: Faith (Selena Gomez), Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), and Cotty (Rachel Korine). This year they don’t want to stay in their small town for spring break again. They’re desperate to leave. So desperate that Brit, Candy, and Cotty get the idea to rob a restaurant to fund their trip. They succeed, leading the four girls to a hellish place called “Florida.” Faith ‐ the religious girl of the group ‐ describes the place as spiritual to her grandmother both before and after Korine shows bros and bro-ish girls partying at their most obnoxious. Spiritual and peaceful this place, and film, are not.

Faith is set up as the heart of the movie to provide a balance to the movie’s less spiritual moments. When something isn’t right, like when the mysterious “Alien” (James Franco) randomly bails them all out of jail, she is the first to point out the obvious about the shady criminal. It makes sense when Alien lands that he serves as Faith’s smart cue to exit the story, leaving the movie without a sensible character for us to follow.

This is when things start to become dangerous, seeing the movie through the prism of the three other girls who may have even shadier morals than Alien. At first it’s a bizarre narrative choice to cut out the audience’s perspective so early on, but Korine’s decision pays off shortly after. Moving from Faith’s Catholic girl view to Alien’s not-so-Catholic perspective is a jarring, hypnotic transition.

Why is he called Alien? Because, according to the drug dealer who has committed every crime known to man, he is indeed an alien, a being from another planet who commands people to “look at [his] shit!”

Franco is willing to dive into all of Alien’s quirks, and his performance and Korine’s creation pay off big. At first Alien registers as only being funny because it’s James Franco, a recent inductee to the Disney blockbuster hall of fame, doing and saying ridiculous things; it’s Franco we’re laughing with, not the character. Then Alien and Franco become another story. Besides gaining shades of humanity towards the end, when we finally accept Franco as this character, it’s wildly entertaining. We don’t chuckle at Franco singing Britney Spears but instead at the fact that Alien knows how to play a Britney Spears song on his poolside white piano and considers the singer an angel. That’s what Alien wants from these girls, for them to be his Beyonces and Britney Spearses.

And girls they all are. Some say that Spring Breakers has an exploitative sheen to it, but while the marketing most certainly does, Korine does not. He shows the girls watching cartoons and playing childish games, reminding the audience that these are children. Gomez, giving a good performance, sheds further light on that idea (especially considering she looks like a 12-year-old).

Korine cast two Disney kids for a reason. He doesn’t film them like he does other random party girls. Every shot of them in a skimpy outfit is purposefully uncomfortable. Anyone who finds their characters titillating certainly won’t by the end.

After a key incident in the film, Korine allows the camera to tell the audience that it’s no longer a simple movie with girls in bikinis and Franco going nutso. The movie wasn’t that in the first place, but a shower scene involving Cotty establishes even more so that these girls are in the wrong place. That transition may not have an emotional impact, since Cotty is the one girl who isn’t entirely developed, but stylistically and thematically, the scene plays.

Korine is exploring characters with reprehensible American dreams. The first few minutes of random characters partying will make any sane person never want to experience such a setting, but the girls we are left with by the end want to live that life forever. They never want spring break to end, and they go to some dark places to make that possible.

The Upside: Korine’s most entertaining movie; crisp and vibrant cinematography; a propulsive score; funny, in both broad and subtle ways; James Franco comes from another planet; the final 30 minutes.

The Downside: Cotty is the odd girl out; the second act takes time to adjust to; Spring Breakers could have been the epic rise of Alien story.

On The Side: Spring Breakers is another movie Megan Ellison was ambitious enough to release.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.