In Spring Breakers, the greens and pinks of Florida’s gulf coast pulse in extra neon. The yellows and reds are super fried. And the whites—the body of a tricked out convertible, maybe, or the exhaust of a bong rip—are a crisp and heavenly pale. “This is the most spiritual place I’ve ever seen,” says Faith (Selena Gomez) of the St. Petersburg setting, which when the film opens is bathed in a gauzy half-light as bikini torsos sway to an ebullient synthesizer melody.
The womp-womp, bump-and-grind bass line contorts like twisted metal. We see legs planted shin-high in the ocean and ass cheeks gyrating up close. Beer is sprayed. Popsicles are fellated. Chiseled young men hold cans at their crotches, spilling liquid into the mouths of topless women bent over backward. Like the jumpy, self-disrupting Skrillex songs that dot its soundtrack, Spring Breakers sometimes juxtaposes the opposing American impulses of grace and hedonism—and with a gaggle of barely clothed Disney Channel and Nickelodeon alumnae in tow, takes that hedonism to delirious, violent extremes. So is this film by Harmony Korine—in which a group of coeds sticks up a greasy spoon with fake guns and ski masks; party-busses to St. Pete; drinks, scooters, and snorts its way to a night in jail; and winds up in the company of a cornrowed James Franco and his many, many firearms—just a piss-take, some batshit indictment of the party-rocking generation? Put another way: Are we to laugh at it, laugh with it, or just feel skeeved out?
Following the opening beach-day bacchanal, we retreat to a nameless college, where a campus minister asks Faith and her devout peers whether they’re “jacked up on Jesus,” and where Faith’s bad-influence friends Brit, Candy, and Coddy (Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, and Rachel Korine) bat back the doldrums by raging at frat parties and snorting blow off of laundry machines. The sun-dappled cinematography and editing, by Benoît Debie and Douglas Crise, is lulling and impressionistic, aided by repeating snippets of voiceover (“just pretend it’s a fucking video game … pretend you’re in a movie or something”) and chilly synthscapes by Cliff Martinez.
Spring Breakers sometimes exhibits the same high-gloss anomie and stylish, distant tone as Drive, the 2011 crime drama whose score was also penned by Martinez. Even as the four friends cross St. Pete’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge and the film’s palette widens, the atmosphere frequently flickers toward the downcast, with brief forward flashes of police lights and bloody knuckles that layer the sunny proceedings with dread. A reverie of scooter rides, jacuzzi sessions, and day parties soon gives way to a sobering night in jail—and then, at last, to Alien, Franco’s neck-tatted white-trash gangsta. “Mo’nin,” he says through a mouth of scenery-chewing gold teeth. “I’ll be your chauffeur.”
Not entirely unlike the girls, who’ve come to Florida to find something beyond their academic bubble, Alien wants to realize the American Dream—and in his telling, he has. “Look at my sheeyit!” he proclaims, well after the point we’ve realized Korine has to be fucking with us. “I got shorts! Every fuckin’ color … I got Scarface. On repeat.” Soon he’ll have the girls in pink Pussy Riot masks and little else—and Spring Breakers will go from existential bikini drama to comedy to something grimmer and more subversive still, and the film’s plot-igniting early violence will get a surprising, bloody capstone.
Throughout, whether Korine means to toast, exploit, deconstruct, or deflate the young and the depthless isn’t always obvious—if anything, he’s having it all of those ways. Spring Breakers has all of the youth-in-revolt exhibitionism of Kids—the 1995 film co-written by Korine about sexually promiscuous teens in New York City—but none of its vérité or, well, stakes. (He does have Gucci Mane this time, though.) But for all the reasons Korine gives us to dismiss Spring Breakers, thanks to its dreamlike composition and genre-tweaking turns and gratifying role reversals, I never really could. Hey, and at the very least, Korine’s given his subjects the right credo. Spring break, bitches!