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Review: Spring Breakers (2013)

Spring Breakers (2013)

Directed by: Harmony Korine

Premise: A group of female college students travel to Florida for spring break and fall in with a local gangster (James Franco).

What Works: The advertising campaign for Spring Breakers has emphasized its carnal qualities and the movie does have situations and images that recall Girls Gone Wild but this is a much better and much more intelligent movie than that. Spring Breakers is really a movie about the myth of spring break and an indictment of millennial culture. The picture begins by introducing four female college students; three of the four are party animals, with one god-fearing student played by Selena Gomez the odd woman out. The students yearn to break out of the routine of student life but they do not have the money to travel, so three of them rob a diner to get the cash. This smartly sets up the characters for what comes later. After a period of debauched partying, the students begin to hang with a smalltime drug dealer, played by James Franco. At this point the movie changes and Spring Breakers emerges as an interrogation of contemporary life. Over the past few decades “spring break” has evolved in American culture from a vacation and into a mythical fantasy land and a rite of passage for young people. The filmmakers of Spring Breakers attempt to capture this cultural myth and unpack what it means. They get to some provocative revelations; the students’ yearning to escape the routines of daily life has a spiritual dimension to it and the filmmakers envision the sloppy drunkenness and the libidinous sexuality with a heap of irony. But among the most interesting elements of Spring Breakers is the muddled distinction between fantasy and reality. The filmmakers consistently include moments in which the young women confuse posturing with authenticity and when they meet James Franco’s character they are further enchanted with an illusion. That delirious quality of Spring Breakers is supported by the moviemaking. This is a beautifully shot picture and its neon colors and exotic locations combine with visual cues of hip-hop music videos to create a spring break fantasy land. The nonlinear editing also assists the film in this regard, fragmenting reality and disrupting cause and effect. The central performance of Spring Breakers is provided by James Franco, who is the personification of the spring break fantasy. The role is an unusual one for Franco but it is also one of his best performances.  

What Doesn’t: Viewers who come to Spring Breakers expecting a Project X-style sex romp are in for a surprise. This is not that kind of movie; it is in fact a criticism of a youth culture that can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality and in many respects it is closer to Kids, Alpha Dog, and Natural Born Killers. The criticism that Spring Breakers has to offer is coherently conveyed but the movie suffers from overstating it. The picture is a fascinating network of pop culture, capitalism, carnal desire, and even spirituality but it is too slow and repetitive. Spring Breakers’ meditative pretensions recall the movies of Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson for both good and bad reasons. Like the better work of those directors, the filmmakers of Spring Breakers refuse to spell out obvious or simplistic messages and take on the ephemeral qualities of life but they are also very self-indulgent and reject the conventions of narrative moviemaking. Except for the student played by Selena Gomez, the main female cast members are virtually interchangeable and there isn’t much to them. That may be part of the point but when Gomez’s character exits the story the tension leaves with her. As a result the movie gets stuck its own navel gazing and it lacks narrative momentum that would push its story toward the climax.

Bottom Line: Spring Breakers is an uneven movie but at its best it has some extraordinary things in it. The picture is extremely well made and a provocative piece of filmmaking even if it is self-indulgent in places.

Episode: #433 (March 31, 2013)