Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spring Breakers (2012)

I grew up during the heyday of MTV culture. In fact, my graduating high school yearbook sold out to MTV and ran a series of pop culture ads - right in the back of the yearbook! And though I always regarded MTV culture with a certain disdain - it seemed to represent to me a celebration of the sort of douchebag jock culture that I, an introverted nerd, grew to despise - I was always, unerringly, captivated by the whole "spring break" theme. Not unlike how I worshipped (in the days before I discovered internet porn) Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition, even as I had virtually no interest in sports and, thus, the rest of Sports Illustrated's regular issues. Spring break was all about hot girls in (and out of) bikinis, on tropical beaches, listening to live music. (I ignored the drugs and alcohol because those two things never interested me much).

In short, it was the place to be - especially from the perspective of a hormonal teen who didn't get enough attention from the ladies. And Girls Gone Wild was basically the porn version of that - hot chicks getting naked and doing sexy things while on the ultimate vacation of their young lives. Although I never got a hold of any actual GGW footage (I was still too young during the time I was aware of it to purchase it legally), I do remember staying up for their infomercial advertising slots late at night on frequent occasions, to let my horny imagination run wild with the teaser clips and censored shots they would run on television.

But the spring break theme wasn't the only thing drawing my attention to Spring Breakers. In any sexy movie about college coeds, a certain quota of debauchery is expected. But instead of casting known bad girl actresses, the cast list to this movie boasts several actresses with innocent, good girl reputations. We have Selena Gomez of Disney's Wizards of Waverly Place and Vanessa Hudgens of Disney's High School Musical, as well as Ashley Benson of Pretty Little Liars. And the fourth girl to round out the cast is the writer/director Harmony Korine's own wife Rachel. Aside from the creative benefits, this was also a brilliant marketing decision, because it gives the Disney girls a chance to reinvent their public image and show the world they've grown up. Lots of people are drawn to the spectacle of corrupted innocence, whether for pure or prurient reasons. And for these girls to be doing a movie like this - I count it a victory for those of us who court with the dark side of life.

Spring Breakers is the dramatic and sexy tale of four college girls trying to break out of the dull monotony of their lives. Spring break is their ticket to escape and freedom, and they'll get there even if they have to rob a diner to fund the trip. But it doesn't end there. They find themselves in jail after a wild party gets raided, and it's James Franco's rapper/gangsta with a heart of gold, self-styled as 'Alien', who bails them out. He likes these girls, but one by one they are whittled down to just the hardest, who can not only stand Alien's hustlin' lifestyle, but actually thrive in it. The audience is treated to quite a show of debauchery, not just involving the swingin' spring breakers' copious intake of sex and drugs, but all the money and guns the local criminal underground hoards and holds onto.

My first impression of Spring Breakers - aside from being pleased by all the exposed flesh - was a feeling that it should have been more Girls Gone Wild and less Gangster Paradise. Take the character of Faith (Gomez) for example. She's the odd girl out, being the most innocent and chaste of the group. She's religious, yet she seems to have no qualms about indulging in drugs and alcohol, and the general party atmosphere of spring break. I thought that was a nice opportunity to point out the hypocrisy, or general hollowness, of religion. But she's the first to bail out when Alien introduces the girls to Florida's criminal underground. She finds a spirituality in the beauty of the beach, and her friendship with the other girls, and the exceptionally enthusiastic mood of the spring breakers. But her stay in paradise is cut short when the going gets rough, and she decides to run back home.

But for a movie about partying and debauchery, Spring Breakers is surprisingly sincere and complex. My appreciation of its themes was greater upon second viewing. At first glance, Alien is a pathetic white gangster, whose immoral idealism idolizes a life of crime, who equates success and power with amassing obscene quantities of guns and money. And yet he manages to be sympathetic, and a lot of the fear and tension I felt at first before I really got to know Alien, changed to curiosity and concern when I saw how much he really did care for these girls. On the other hand, a deeper look reveals the cold, calculating cruelty of two of the girls in the group, who are likely sociopaths, and seem to be natural born criminals.

The movie does play very much like a fever dream, perhaps an homage in parts to the days of music video pop culture. Scenes are played, sometimes repeated, dialogue sometimes overlaid, not always in direct chronological order. But there's a sense of purpose to it. And a sort of sensitivity, an existential mood, permeates it all, so that even though these characters are committing crimes and dealing in debauchery, you feel for them and their search for the meaning in their lives. And yet it still concerns you - even scares you - when you see just how far some of them will go, can go, want to go, to satisfy their craving for excitement and adventure. But, nevertheless, it's one wild, endearing ride.


  1. Thanks for the review. Interesting that you would equate it with MTV's 90s rise as an arbiter of general teen culture. A little bit surprised you saw this movie before I did. Admittedly none of these actresses are favorites of mine, but it's a movie connected to teen pop culture so it's in my column of the proverbial magazine.

    Obviously I shouldn't dive into the film since I haven't seen it, but if he really does care for these girls, why is he introducing them to the criminal underground? Seems like an interesting dichotomy.

    Tying into some of the teenage rumminations you hit on, another recent movie that you would probably adore, if you haven't seen it already, is called Turn Me On, Dammit. A Norwegian film (they do seem to have the coming of age market cornered), it's basically the inverse of American Pie ad infinitum, a sexy romp about teenagers out on the prowl to wantonly lose their virginity. Except that... these teenagers are girls. I've yet to see it but it seems up your alley.

    The movie has gotten great reviews and I'm a sucker for a sincere coming of age movie so I'll probably get it, which of course means you can see it relatively soon if you choose to wait.

  2. Well, he's the kind of guy who thinks crime is a good thing - and it's what he's all about, so he wants to show these girls his world.

    That movie sounds intriguing!