Is it bad on purpose, or is it just bad? If it is bad on purpose, what does that tell us? After the initial shock, the reliving of various James Franco monologues—most of all an off-the-rails, materialistic “look at all my shit!” moment that is funny on multiple levels—these are the questions that will determine whether you like Spring Breakers, like it in a so-bad-it’s-good way, or do not like it at all. To be sure, there are plenty of things about the film that do not work in a traditional sense. The titular quartet, three played by Disney ladies with good-girl images and the fourth by director Harmony Korine’s wife, are virtually indistinguishable from one another in terms of personality (with the exception of Selena Gomez’ Faith). The ridiculousness of slow-motion booty-shaking, boob-jiggling and beer-guzzling shots that recurs throughout the film to the four-on-the-floor dubstep stylings of Skrillex and Cliff Martinez is the biggest spring break cliché this side of MTV. There is a lot that will make you laugh, but you will not necessarily know if it’s with the film, at the film or both, and if that is by Korine’s own design.
To be sure, some of what you see cannot be rationalized no matter how hard you try. The acting, and particularly the dialogue-delivery, of the actresses is bad beyond all explanation. Likewise, the cutaways to the bikini-clad co-eds lying to their mothers on the phone seem to serve no purpose but to warn parents to lock up your kids indefinitely. When Spring Breakers un-pauses and move its story along, it can even be boring—something an adrenaline, booze-filled trope-commentary should never be. Other aspects are difficult but not impossible: Why does a movie about four girls going on spring break objectify the female body so recklessly when the women all clearly want to see the naked men? The first 30 minutes of the film reminds us almost non-stop that these girls want to go to Florida and roll around in the hay with some attractive men, and the camera clings to their faces as they do. The girls express their desire for guys, but the camera expresses desire for lesbian kisses. Shouldn’t the camera focus either on the girls achieving their goals or continue to watch them, not go off on its own and look for random naked women? The interjecting party scenes are more of a reminder of the image in which this film is made than an additive complement to it, a reminder of setting and stereotypes, a wish of the director himself instead of an expression of character-desire or experience.
Sometimes, however, the “it’s meant to do that, that’s the point” argument is hard to refute. The casting of rapper Gucci Mane, who spends his time either in court for assault, drug charges, and occasionally murder or in a studio making laughably bad materialistic, is even less likely to be meant non-satirically than modeling a James Franco’s character, “Alien,” on Riff-Raff. Additionally, certainly the guy who has directed music videos for Sonic Youth, co-written lyrics with Bjork, and who recruited Spiritualized to score Mister Lonely is making fun of the thugged-out idea of “spring break, spring break forevah” when he sets a glorified montage of robberies to a Britney Spears song. Korine’s previous movie, Trash Humpers, was shot on worn-out VHS to parallel the trashy look of its characters. Spring Breakers opts for counterpoint, sound and image often times contradicting each other (as with the phone calls home). That’s enough to convince me on that front.
But where do we draw the line? If the three girls not played by Selena Gomez not only act and talk alike, but look alike, can we say that it’s a comment on the conformity and dime-a-dozen nature of spring breakers who liken themselves unique for their nihilistic ignorance of consequences? It’s certainly possible. At the same time, however, there are occasional attempts to try to distinguish one from another that mostly fall short and two major story events that are important but fail on a developmental level for all four girls.
More likely, Spring Breakers is a commentary, albeit a rather tame one, on the similarities between the hedonistic outlaw life and the more traditional college one. Early in the film, the girls say they want to leave school because they are tired of seeing the same things, the same people, doing the same old habits every day. When their vacation gets started and as they get further involved with Alien, exchanges are looped several times over saturated montages, as if to suggest the repetitive and monotonous nature of the spring break lifestyle. But at the same time, these girls never do the same thing over and over again; if the looped dialogue is the film’s way of telling us that they do, you could never tell by the characters. These impressions come in moments, none more effective than when Alien, caught in a frightful moment, begins to suck on the barrel of a pistol. In that moment, hedonism and ignorance of consequences meet shallow, anti-intellectual materialism at a crossroads that illuminates modern-day “rebellion” as a laughably immature, pointless act of autofellatio.
But for all its counterpoint and ironic intent, Spring Breakers cannot help but feel a bit empty. Its brand of parody inherently preaches to the choir, affirming the beliefs and knowledge of those who pick up on its satiric intent or adding fuel to the fire for those who do not. At its most clever, it’s just that—clever, but never remarkable, an admirable pastiche far before an intelligent satire.
What keeps the film moving through its rollercoaster of un/successful ironic intent and disguised shallowness is the stunning digital cinematography of Benoît Debie (best known for his work with Gaspar Noe and Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night), which throws a floating camera into a sea of saturated colors that nicely reflects the girls’ excitement and boredom. There is one real stunner: when the girls rob a diner to get the money to afford spring break, the action is shot from the point-of-view of the getaway car as it circles the building, letting us peer in at the robbery as it progresses. It’s a great individual shot in a film propelled by contrasting images making up a montage constantly set to the crunchy sounds of EDM music, but that music-video aesthetic is every bit as stunning as the best shot. Occasionally, Korine will over-use the shaky-cam close-up, but as a whole, Spring Breakers is kept alive by a keen awareness of the advantages of digital shooting, and it utilizes its visuals to keep the viewer involved even when Franco’s Alien can’t bring the laughs. When Spring Breakers is failing to make its point, Debie keeps it pretty, and that keeps the eyes glued to the screen well after the shtick is worn out.