Spring Breakers: surprisingly well-made and sarcastic film about the search for a meaningful life

Harmony Korine, “Spring Breakers” (2012)

Contrary to most reports I’ve seen or heard about this film, “Spring Breakers” is actually a very well-made piece with a strong if sarcastic plot and a universal theme that is very moving. Four young college-age girls, fed up with their boring lives swotting at school and yearning for something different, exciting and above all fun, scrape together money obtained in an unusual way – well, all right, three of them robbed a diner – and take the long-distance bus down to Florida where together with all the other bored college-age kids from across America party-party-party, do drugs, flirt with horny guys, crash out in hotel rooms and leave trash wherever they go. The law catches up with them for being under-age and doing things they shouldn’t, and the frisky fillies end up in county jail. A hiphop DJ gangster called Alien (James Franco) is impressed with the girls in their court-room appearances, so much so he bails them out to use them for his own ends.

Two of the girls, Faith (Selena Gomez) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony’s wife), bail out for reasons of their own, leaving their friends Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) to assist Alien when he is threatened by his arch-rival Big Arch (Gucci Mane). At this point the film becomes very surrealistic and the question for audiences to ponder is whether what they see in the rest of the film is for real or is the girls’ fantasy. The end when it comes is very surprising and one questions whether, beneath the girls’ apparent dumbness, there lurks more animal cunning in their little fingers than there is in most men’s heads.

The film is very artfully made: it has the look of a home movie with the use of different film-stock, crazy camera angles and lots of deliberate repetition. The music soundtrack is an integral part of the film: the different songs appear to be just another soundtrack collation of dance tracks to look cool but sound effects are inserted into the songs to emphasise darker, more sinister subterranean suggestions that foretell doom. The music and effects complement the film’s plot perfectly and play up the girls’ apparent innocence as they stumble into one situation after another that would seem to be more than they can handle either as individuals or as a group.

The acting is adequate for the film but special mention should be made of Franco’s performance in giving his narcissistic character Alien more depth and nuance than it deserves. One starts to feel some sympathy for Alien, where he has come from, why he collects so much firepower machinery and Oriental weapons, and his collection, kitschy though it may be, of what passes for culture in the shallow and materialist world that is mainstream USA. Likewise, Big Arch becomes concerned that with Brit and Candy, Alien is making more inroads into his territory than he should be allowed to; we see him at home with his baby girl and his family, and we start to see him more as a family man than as the drug king-pin gangster he is. The girls themselves are very one-dimensional with Faith, the most “developed” character, being not much more than a pretty girl with a conscience and a conservative Christian background that isn’t of any help to her.

Repetition of scenes, the girls’ basic hedonistic and yearning character, and plot points serves to point up the banal and kitsch nature of US culture and society. The girls, brought up on Barbie dolls and Disney princesses, are bored with the shallow life they have led so far and the shallow life they see ahead of them, and spring break represents all that they yearn for: a break from conformity, a chance to experiment with a new life and outlook, the desire to be individuals, the opportunity for personal expression. Unfortunately spring break turns out to be just as empty and hollow as the life they left behind: other kids are just interested in exploiting one another or escaping from life through chemical means. The police intrude on their fun and the girls are forced to face, temporarily at least, the consequences of their self-absorbed and selfish hedonism.

The film’s theme of the search for happiness and fulfillment is a dark and troubling one: four youngsters, ill-prepared by their sheltered upbringing (sheltered in the sense that watching too much bad TV, spending all your time on social networks and exposure to feel-good fundamentalist Christianity together teach a false view of human nature and society), go on a journey to find the meaning of life, which they believe revolves around being happy and rich and enjoying material pleasures. Their adventures turn out to be empty and unfulfilling, and the girls become corrupted by their experiences. Though the film ends well for the four girls and all survive physically, spiritually they are dead inside: ironically, the right preparation they need to be Stepford wives – but that of course is another story …

 

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