March 27, 2013

SPRING BREAKERS Believes In A Magic Place Y'All

"Look at my shit!"
To call Spring Breakers fetishistic might be the understatement of the year, but not in the way you might think.

When I saw the first trailer for Harmony Korine's latest, I called it "a neon nightmare."  Having now seen the finished film, the description feels even more apt.  More specifically, the entire film seems to exist in a sort of dream-state where events blur together and conversations run on a loop while emotions swing wildly from dizzying highs to terrifying lows. There is no middle ground, just characters bouncing from one extreme to the next with hardly a moment for the audience to catch their collective breath.

Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Corine) are four college girls desperate to escape the monotony of their Southern home and travel to Florida for a week of spring break shenanigans.  The only problem is that all four are flat broke.  Faith is the innocent Christian girl who spends her free time in prayer circles with her church youth group ("Are you jacked up for Jesus?"), while Candy, Brit and Cotty have much darker tendencies, a fact made clear when the three decide to rob a local restaurant using hammers and squirt guns in order to fund their trip to St. Petersburg.  They soon find themselves in a world of constant ecstasy.  It's all sun, booze, surf, music, drugs, scooters and sunsets.  Shadows and sobriety are a distant memory and no matter how destructive or potentially dangerous the situation, nothing seems able to throw a damper on the party.

The extended partying sequences are highly idealized, almost like what a teenager imagines the perfect spring break would be like.  When they're not packed into a crowded party or outdoor concert, the girls are lounging in the pool or dancing around a liquor store parking lot singing Brittany Spears.  Everything's in good fun and the girls never feel like they're in real danger, despite putting themselves into some truly scary situations.   We see one raucous party where kids are literally tearing down the ceiling of a hotel room, and Cotty finds herself in tiny back rooms, half-naked and chugging beer with sketchy guys who look poised to force themselves on her at any moment.  But that never happens and everything remains all smiles.  Even the sweet Faith gets into the swing of things, describing the vacation as a religious experience over the phone to her grandmother.  While she's curious about the seedier side of their trip and the criminal exploit that got them there, she focuses instead on the positive: spending time in a beautiful new place and "finding herself" with her best friends at her side.

It all comes crashing down when the police arrive to break up a party and the girls are all arrested on possession charges.  They spend a night in prison, only to get bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a local rapper and self-styled gangster who exemplifies the lifestyle that has these girls so enraptured.  This is where the movie really kicks into gear.  Alien is like a sleazy black hole, drawing them in with a sort of goofy, lovable charm that is also undeniably predatory in nature.  Faith immediately knows she's in over her head and gets on the first bus headed home, but Candy, Brit and Cotty embrace their own penchant for violence and wealth over safety.  The girls are soon inseparable from Alien, living in his palace of excess and donning pink ski masks with their bikinis as they get embroiled in a turf war with Alien's rival Big Arch.

Plenty of digital ink has been spilled talking about the casting for former Disney stars Gomez and Hudgens as over-sexed, violent party girls.  In reality Gomez's character is downright tame and she departs the film before it really turns twisted.  And while Cotty (played by the Harmony Korine's wife Rachel) is certainly more willing to live out on the edge, eventually she too is shocked back to reality after getting shot in a driveby and soon finds herself on a bus headed north.  It's really Candy and Brit who dive into the gangster life and never look back.  Aside from the film's crazy finale, they have an absolutely unreal scene in Alien's bedroom that proves the girls can be just as menacing as him.  They don't treat the gangster lifestyle like an affectation or a fashionable pose to adopt until something newer and shinier comes along.  They're dedicated.  They're in it.  When Alien declares the girls to be his "motherfuckin' soulmates," there's no doubt that the feeling is mutual.

So let's talk about James Franco for a minute.

The guy has become an easy target for ridicule the last few years, between his Oscar hosting trainwreck, his time spent on a soap opera and the multitude of college degrees he's recently undertaken on any given week.  Even I dumped on him a bit in my first reaction to the trailer.  Much like Tom Cruise, his public persona has overtaken his performances and we all kind of forgot why we liked him in the first place.  Well, get ready to remember because he is AMAZING here.  Franco absolutely disappears under his dreadlocks, tattoos and oral hardware, inhabiting a creature unlike anything he's ever played before.  He's lost all pretense here, eschewing any concern for self-image to create a character that will undoubtedly insinuate itself into our collective subconscious.  (Prepare yourself for dozens of memes in the coming weeks.)  The occasional stiffness seen in roles like Harry Osbourne melts away, replaced with a demonic charisma that quite simply demands your attention.   This is an iconic, career defining performance; when Franco dies, his In Memoriam clip at the Oscars will be Alien yelling, "Look at my shit!"

So what about that fetishism?  Well, there is certainly plenty of nudity on display here.  In fact the first five minutes or so are just slo-mo shots of breasts, six-pack abs and bikini clad asses soaked in beer and bouncing to the beats of Skrillex's propulsive score.  It almost feels like a Girls Gone Wild video, although there eventually comes a point of desensitization; the audience is strapped into a Clockwork Orange chair and shown so many naked body parts that eventually there's no real turn on.  The easy assumption was that the casting of ex-Disney stars was all about rushing to be the first to sexualize girls made famous for family-friendly material, similar to the way the internet treated the Olsen twins when I was in college (or, more recently, Hermione Granger).  While all the girls are essentially wading in the waters of debauchery to a certain degree, arguably the most innocent seeming of the bunch, Gomez, pretty much escapes with her dignity in tact.  While the sexual edge is undeniable (Hudgens, Benson and Franco have a threesome in his pool), there's nothing romantic or alluring about it.  It just becomes another signpost on the road to ruination.

Despite all the posters and the press materials, (i.e. the image at the top of this article) the focus isn't really on the sex.  No, the idealization is centered around escape.  These girls are unsatisfied with their home and their normal lives, but they're not interested in doing any of the legitimate work that might help them move on to a better place.  Instead of paying attention in class, they write dirty notes to each other and dream of spring break.  They don't have enough money, so instead they terrorize innocent diner patrons rather than accept that they can't have everything they want.  The repeatedly talk about escaping reality and getting away from the real world, and the constant party environment of spring break provides the perfect alternate dimension to hide away in.  It's no coincidence that when they first encounter Alien, he not only promises a life filled with easy money and flashy toys, he tells them he got his name because he's from another world, and promises to take them away from a life of dull mediocrity.  It's indicative of the mindset of an entire generation, one that fetishizes reward and success without any real skill or effort.  It's the cult of Kardashian taken to the O.G. extreme, and it's depressing as fuck.  I'm honestly not sure if Korine is trying to endorse this twisted manifestation of the American dream, or if he's simpy fascinated by it.  The ending feels ambiguous at best, horrifying at worst.  But either way I was enthralled watching it all play out on the screen.  And Franco really is single-handedly worth the price of admission.

Along with the thumping beats and constantly whispered mantra of "Spring breeeeaaaaaak," there is the ever present sound of a pistol being cocked, instilling a sense of increasing dread over the entire proceeding.  It's clear that someone's eventually going to pay the price for all this unearned success.  I have to wonder if that's not a warning for all of America's youth.

And if it is, will they bother to heed it?

Title: Spring Breakers
Director: Harmony Korine
Starring: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theater (AMC Boston Common)

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