“Spring break, spring break…“ Like a life-affirming mantra, rapper turned gangster Alien (James Franco), chants the words again and again. Like a drug-induced reverie, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers takes the idea of spring break for more than a rite of passage, but for the very meaning of life. Some might argue that the film revels in style over substance, but Harmony Korine is a director who has always rewritten the rulebook. His style of filmmaking is the ultimate form of substance abuse and Spring Breakers is quite a trip.
In a piece of inspired casting Korine turns former Disney Channel stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, alongside Ashley Benson and his wife Rachel Korine into a group of budding spring breakers. Gomez’s Faith is a good Christian girl, but she is bored by her immediate surroundings. Desperate to go on spring break the other three commit a robbery to fund the trip. The robbery is directed with a gritty efficiency, in one long tense take that feels like Killing Them Softly imbued in neon. Soon they are away from their world of stained glass churches and endless laptops, to Florida for naked bodies, drugs and booze.
Like a month spent on magic mushrooms, Spring Breakers flows with an extremely abstract sense of time. Korine drops in and pulls out key characters on a whim, while the editing of the sound and visuals is hallucinatory and cyclical. However, there is a ruthless efficiency in his scripting that drives the narrative forward into unexpected territory; this means our perception of who the main character is changes throughout the film. The film’s thriller set-up is never far from our minds though, making for an original juxtaposition of genre and art house styling (brilliantly shot and lit by Gaspar Noe’s regular cinematographer Benoît Debie.)
But cine-literacy is not the name of the game here; it is entertainment, albeit through Korine’s unique auteur eye. The film’s high points include a frighteningly convincing assembly of gangsters (headed up by rapper Gucci Mane) and a bizarre musical centerpiece where Alien and the girls sing ‘Everytime’ by Britney Spears. This moment recalls Korine’s glorious use of Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ in his 1997 debut Gummo. Franco’s performance as Alien is also a surprisingly nuanced highlight. When he brags about his status as a ‘G’ with the words “look at all my shit!” (referring to his stockpile of guns and money), we know that underneath he is really a sweetheart.
While it seemed like 2007’s Mister Lonely was Harmony Korine’s closest stab at the mainstream, Spring Breakers has transcended even that. The best thing about this film though is that it still feels true to Korine’s own cinematic lineage, with moments of rough documentary style and a disturbingly ambiguous moral conclusion. The film’s elusive moral values may not work for all audience members, but for fans of his grungy tragedy Julien Donkey-Boy and his bittersweet Mister Lonely, Spring Breakers sees the enfant terrible at the chaotic height of his directorial powers.