Spring Breakers (2013)

Drama Rated R

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, an avant-garde riff on girls-gone-wild culture, is the work of a provocateur without much purpose. In some ways I admire the movie’s decision to neither moralize nor celebrate the hedonism on display, to allow the audience to be part of the creative/interpretive process. Yet if some filmmakers  – a Korine contemporary like Cristian Mungiu, for instance – do this as a gift to viewers, Korine’s approach is quite different. He prefers to drop a stink bomb.

There’s an inherent limitation to such art. We come, we’re shocked, we go home (and forget the movie fairly quickly after the shock wears off). Not that Spring Breakers is really all that shocking. As it follows four college friends – played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine  – indulging in all sorts of debauchery on a spring-break trip to Florida, the movie hits most of the decadent notes you’d expected from a beer-soaked beach party operating under a generous R rating.

Though obvious and tedious in many ways (repetition is a favored Korine conceit), Spring Breakers does become a bit more interesting in its second half, when the movie transitions from cultural snapshot to cultural myth. Hudgens and Benson play Candy and Brit, respectively, the group’s more committed partiers, and as the movie proceeds they begin to register less as people than as mythological figures (from the very start, the black-light glow of the film’s color scheme discourages us from seeing them as individuals). Early on Candy and Brit are described as having “demon blood;” certainly they’re sirens of temptation for Hudgens’ Faith, who attends a college prayer group and is the most cautious among the friends. Later, after connecting with a wannabe gangster named Alien (an inspired James Franco, smartly playing things straight), Candy and Brit transform into agents of terror. When Alien refers to them as mermaids, it’s worth remembering that mermaids, in some legends, are vicious, carnivorous creatures.

Spring Breakers is a fantasy version of Steubenville (with a wishful dose of girl power) that does nothing to help us understand the sort of aggression that has become such a dominant part of youth culture.

So Spring Breakers not only captures the overt sexuality of contemporary youth culture, but also the unbridled aggression and propensity for violence (it’s telling that during the beachside bacchanals, there are as many shots of middle fingers as bare breasts).  Even before they hook up with Alien’s semi-automatic weapons, Candy and Brit frequently make guns out of their fingers and playfully shoot each other in the head. For added effect, Korine emphasizes cuts between scenes with gunshots on the soundtrack. Indeed, if you’re left distressed about “the state of today’s kids” after seeing Spring Breakers, it’s likely not because of the sex, but the anger.

But is that enough of a takeaway to validate the movie? What, exactly, does the picture offer its audience? The slightness of Spring Breakers didn’t become clear to me until I put it into contemporary context and recalled the rape trial that recently took place in Steubenville, Ohio, where two high-school football stars were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl last summer over the course of a night of drunken partying. The investigation revealed that other teens either documented or traded pictures of the assault while doing little or nothing to protect the girl; in the aftermath, she was also threatened with further violence by female classmates.

Spring Breakers doesn’t get this nasty (though one scene flirts with such a volatile situation, then curiously backs away from it). In many ways, though, Spring Breakers is a fantasy version of Steubenville (with a wishful dose of girl power) that does nothing to help us understand the sort of aggression that has become such a dominant part of youth culture. It’s a nihilistic vision of today’s kids that the news out of Steubenville might support, yet when held in the light of that real-world horror, the movie feels flimsy and insignificant. We’re already getting this on CNN, so what do we gain from Korine’s heightened, mythical take on it?

Spring Breakers comes to a convulsive climax of giddy violence, with Candy and Brit as Victoria’s Secret angels of death. In the aftermath, they hit the road in their blood-stained bikinis, leaving Florida behind to (presumably) prey on middle America. We’re meant to be shocked, if not scared. But as Steubenville revealed, the Brits and Candys of the world are already among us.