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Spring Breakers
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by Peter Sobczynski

5 stars

Ever since its production was announced a while ago, people have been looking forward to "Spring Breakers" with an equal amount of anticipation and sheer disbelief that such a thing could possibly exist. (Hell, I have seen the thing and can still hardly believe that it exists.) After all, if forced to conjure up the least likely project to make its way to the multiplex, one could hardly imagine anything more potentially inconceivable than a collaboration between former Disney starlets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens and writer-director Harmony Korine, the creator of such controversial cult oddities as "Gummo," "Julian--Donkey Boy" and the immortal "Trash Humpers." It sounds like a recipe for potential disaster--a film that could horrify young fans of its stars who may assume it is along the innocuous lines of something like "Monte Carlo" while inspiring followers of Korine to accuse him of selling out his cinematic ideals for the sake of a quick buck. Instead,the end result may well be the damnedest film of the season--a delightfully disturbed celebration/deconstruction of media-fueled power-pop fantasies that sends viewers on a candy-colored joyride to hell and back and leaves them shaken, stirred and giddy for more.

As the film opens, it is time for spring break, that annual collegiate celebration of bad behavior that has developed over time for the relative innocence of "Where the Boys Are" to what might have been seen in ancient Rome if Caligula had access to MTV. On some unnamed college campus, the sweet, religious Faith (Gomez) and her three best friends, bad girls Candy (Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine), have just discovered to their dismay that they are not even close to having enough money to make the trip themselves to have, as they put it, "a chance to see something different." While Faith is resigned to several days of boredom and Bible study, the others take matters into their own hands and, with the aid of ski masks, toy guns and a car stolen from a professor, rob a chicken joint to get the money. The job is successful and while Faith is shocked when they tell her how they got the money, she quickly gets over it and soon the four are rolling through the streets of St. Petersburg on rented scooters and in their tiniest bikinis as they go from one bacchanal to the next.

Inevitably, they let their hair down a little too far and eventually find themselves busted on drug charges and faced with paying a fine or spending a few days in jail. All seems lost until they learn that their fines have been paid and they are free to go. Their mysterious benefactor turns out to be Alien (James Franco), a local drug/arms dealer and aspiring rapper who sees them as kindred spirits (or as he less delicately puts it, "You're my motherfucking soulmates!") and offers to help them keep their spring break going forever. Alien invites them into his gun-filled home ("I got "Scarface" on repeat") and is friendly enough, even while planning to start a turf war with his former best friend, but Faith gets a bad vibe from him right from the start and wants to go home right then and there. Her friends, on the other hand, fall under Alien's spell and become convinced that they are finally living the lives that they were destined for. It can't last forever, of course, and before long, the girls finally learn that one absolute truth about spring break--it is all fun and games until someone winds up taking a bullet or two.

Truth be told, the previous works of Harmony Korine have never done much for me in the past--I thought that "Kids," which he wrote as a teenager for director Larry Clark, was nothing more than a self-consciously sleazy update of the old juvenile delinquent films of the Fifties that preyed on adult paranoia of what their kids were up to and his other films were little more than empty provocations that grew more and more tedious with each successive effort. (Despite being little more than an hour long, his previous film "Trash Humpers" is almost impossible to sit through from start to finish for all but the hardiest viewers.)

That said, I have always liked the idea of a filmmaker like Korine who stands in defiance of nearly all the laws of conventional cinema and I must admit that most of his films have contained memorable moments of offbeat visual beauty or weirdo humor ("Gummo" has any number of grotesquely gorgeous moments and "Julian--Donkey Boy" includes a wonderful supporting turn from no less a figure than the equally iconoclastic director Werner Herzog). If nothing else, he should get some points for helping to expose the world to the glory that is Chloe Sevigny.

As a result, I have always looked forward to every new film of his in the hopes that this would be the one in which he finally tied everything together into a consistent whole. With "Spring Breakers" he has finally done that and while some of his fans may complain that it is not as overtly transgressive as his earlier efforts, he nevertheless manages to pull off the complicated trick of making a film that works both as a cannily made piece of pop cinema and as a distinctly personal piece of filmmaking that fits in easily with the rest of his oddball oeuvre. On the surface, it may look like another tedious celebration of obnoxious debauchery along the lines of the "Hangover" movies or the unspeakably vile "Project X" but it could not be more different from those craptaculars. Sure, the story may be complete nonsense but what he does here is take familiar material and breathes new life into it by filtering it through his own uniquely skewed perspective and the results, against all odds, feel thrillingly new and vital.

Korine has been aided immeasurably by the contributions of cinematographer Benoit Debie, who gives a stunning visual sheen to the proceedings that, like the story itself, quietly and inexorably morphs from a Day-Glo dream to a neon-tinted nightmare, and the driving score by Cliff Martinez, Skrillex and a wide variety of tunes chosen to underscore many key moments. The four actresses are all fun and engaging, even if Gomez is the only one that truly stands out while her similarly named, maned and behaved costars sort of blend together after a while (though I concede that this may have been the point all along), and Franco offers up a hilariously nutso turn as the tour guide to their darker sides (It could be argued that his performance here is a more compelling and convincing version of Oz the Great and Powerful that the one that he gave in the actual film of that title.)

The most significant thing about "Spring Breakers"--the element that sets it apart from the rest of Korine's filmography as well as the likes of kids-run-wild epics like "The Real Cancun," the current "21 & Over" and that "Jersey Shore" nonsense--is that there is a genuine point to the proceedings that allows it to be more than just a compendium of lurid excess. To these eyes, the film is an exploration of the act of transformation and the pleasures and perils that it can inspire. The ritual of spring break--at least as depicted here--is a chance for normally straight-laced people to cut loose for a few days and perhaps discover sides to themselves that they never knew they possessed.

In the case of our heroines, going wild will allow them to finally become who they were meant to be but once they make that transformation, they realize--perhaps too late--that who they were is who they are and that making that journey back is an infinitely more difficult trip. It also turns out that Alien is more of a soulmate to the girls than even he could have imagined. He too is trying to be the badass that he thinks he is supposed to be thanks to media-fueled fantasies, even if it means turning on a former friend, and this transformation could lead to his destruction as well.

Transformation is all over the place in this film and some of the most arresting moments deal with the power of popular culture and how it can help transform events. Early on in the proceedings, we see Candy, Brit and Cotty robbing the chicken joint through one rough-and-tumble long shot taken from outside the restaurant that will no doubt remind film noir fans of a similar sequence in the classic "Gun Crazy" and which suggests that they succeeded more through dumb luck than anything else. However, when they recount the robbery for Faith, it is depicted as the kind of slick, brutal heist that wouldn't seem out of place in a gritty Michael Mann thriller like "Thief" or "Heat."

In other parts, Korine invokes no less a contemporary example of the power of change than Britney Spears herself to serve as a kind of crackpot spiritual guide to the proceedings. In one scene, the girls find themselves singing "Baby One More Time" outside of a bar and what was once a mindless bit of ear candy becomes a strangely powerful hymn from the heart and illustrates the power of pop to cut through our carefully constructed defenses and reveal who we really are. Later on, the Spears ballad "Everytime" inspires a singalong between Alien and the girls, all of whom are wearing ski masks and toting machine guns, that also develops in unanticipated ways and the resulting sequence is such an audacious jaw-dropper that it is not only worth the price of admission all by itself, it is also worth the price of a large popcorn at the concession stand as well.

Make no mistake about it, "Spring Breakers" is likely to put off a lot of people for being either too depraved and transgressive or not depraved and transgressive enough, depending on their perspective. Even those who find themselves on the same wavelength as the film may find that it sags a little bit in the final third once Selena Gomez disappears from the proceedings (though I find the ugly crash after the sugar high of the first hour to be an inspired choice that effectively puts the viewers in the same state of mind as the characters). Whatever its problems, this blend of art-house exploration and pure exploitation is a stunner from start to finish--funny, savage, strange, gorgeous, and creepy in equal measures and it even manages to make room for a certain degree of morality and redemption amidst all the chaos that is wholly unexpected. The great William Blake once wrote "The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom, for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough." "Spring Breakers" is a film that not only understands the meaning of that quote but manages to look good while doing so as well.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24230&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/21/13 17:35:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/09/14 Butt Looses a star for too much unecessary T&A. Scarface for the new millenium. 4 stars
9/27/13 Derek Diercksmeier An absolute masterpiece! 5 stars
8/14/13 Flipsider I'm not sure if I liked it, but it was mesmerizing. 4 stars
7/30/13 Langano Enjoyed the ride. 4 stars
7/25/13 mr.mike It was dreadful. 2 stars
3/27/13 Jeff Wilder Effectively uses Spring Break as a metaphor for a society rotting from inside. 4 stars
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  15-Mar-2013 (R)
  DVD: 09-Jul-2013


  DVD: 09-Jul-2013

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