Friday, March 22, 2013

Girls Gone Wild: SPRING BREAKERS


Spring Breakers is a film that has its cake and eats it too. It’s a turbulent high/low collision, an art house exploitation film and moody mainstream wallow. It springs from the head of Harmony Korine, a once-precocious filmmaker who has made a career out of creating films that serve as thumbs in the eyes of both propriety and audiences in detestable artfully artless small-scale grime like Gummo and Trash Humpers. (The outlier is the sweetly, emptily bizarre Mister Lonely.) What’s left to do once you’ve so thoroughly cultivated a niche aura of punk unpredictability? His new film is a stab towards something like mainstream disreputability with a topsy-turvy R-rated update of the squeaky clean 1950s teen beach movies that’s been driven off the surf and into a neon beach out of a Michael Mann film, a feature-length montage overlaid with Malickian voice over and a non-stop dubstep and hip-hop soundtrack (Skrillex wrote the music with composer Cliff Martinez). It’s a film that sends its characters straight into a horrifying bacchanalia and keeps pushing until it finds the even more horrifying criminality simmering permanently underneath. It’s ugly, volatile, occasionally offensive, largely troubling, and always mesmerizing. What a trip.

It all starts at an unspecified any-college, where whomping bass seeps out of carousing frat house gatherings and bored youths stare vacantly at their history professor, the darkened classroom a sea of glowing laptop screens. We first meet Faith (Selena Gomez) at a campus church group. Afterwards, one of the other young congregants (Glee’s Heather Morris) asks Faith if, for Spring Break, she still plans on going to Flordia with a group of rowdier girls. “I’ve known them since Kindergarten,” Faith says, summoning a kind of protective innocence. (Her friend’s advice? Pray.) Everything will be fine, Faith thinks. It’s all going to be fun. But, with her religiousness and her name being clear thematic markers, what she’s really in for is a trip to a metaphoric Hell above and beyond the collegiate partying she’s witnessed. She’s also not aware that, with money tight, her travelling companions (Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, and Rachel Korine) have just raised the money necessary for their travel by robbing a diner armed with squirt guns and a sledgehammer.

That this information, when revealed, isn’t an immediate red flag to Faith is a little disconcerting, but away the young women go, itching for adventure, St. Petersburg bound. Once there, they find themselves in the middle of the prolonged beachside riot of drugs, alcohol, and young bodies in slippery swimsuits that is Spring Break in certain areas of the nation’s warmer climes. Korine films it all so closely and lovingly that I felt the need for a new word, one that would go above and beyond “ogle.” The way his camera lunges towards and lingers on extras, but especially at his constantly skimpily attired stars, is about as subtle as a cartoon “ahoogah!” Numerous scenes of youthful people engaging in varied, energetic, and dangerous activities immediately follow. Now, I don’t think I’m being a premature fuddy-duddy to say that this kind of partying seems to have nothing to do with fun. It’s an endurance test of ingesting the most mind-altering, mood-scrambling substances, damaging property, staying out in the sun all day and risking severe bodily harm all night. Inevitably, I suppose, the girls end up in jail when a party they’ve stumbled into gets broken up. Standing in the courtroom for sentencing – pay a fine or spend two days in the slammer – wearing only their Day-Glo bikinis, the judge takes one look at them and asks “spring breakers?” knowing full well the answer. He must see a lot of them this time of year.

The girls are unexpectedly bailed out. Alien, a creepy low-level, drug-dealing, wannabe rapper who gazes out at them from over dark sunglasses with a smile so wide they can admire his grill, pays their fines in full. Played by James Franco in spectacularly ratty cornrows, this self-styled gangster brags about wanting to “do bad,” not wanting to “do good,” shows off his guns and knives, lets them try his weed, and makes sure to put in a plug for his music which he proudly says can be heard on YouTube. He oozes a sense of danger and razor’s-edge impulsiveness that informs the rest of the film as the college girls (all at first, but as some return home, their number grows smaller and tougher) get slowly pulled into the local underground scene of drug dealers, thieves, and club owners that feeds parasitically off the marginally more reputable waves of spring breakers that annually flood the city. Let’s just say that the guns at play are squirt guns no more. That in this final narrative descent, Franco’s rival, played by Gucci Mane, is the only black character to have any lines and is here only to create a clear villain (or something close to it) is ugly, an example of the film’s occasionally offensive jumble.

But, troubling though it is, Korine’s film is both ugly and sublime, sometimes at once, as in a string of shakedowns shot in slow motion and accompanied by only the sound of Britney Spears’s ballad “Everytime.” (Earlier, the girls goofily sang “…Baby One More Time” to each other, though the Britney songs that you’d think would be most apt to the proceedings – “Oops! I Did It Again” and “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Women” – go unheard.) It’s hard to parse if the film is reveling in the teasing debauchery or drawing a stark lesson in its inevitable descent into greater and greater criminality. Is it a film of instant-gratification nihilism or stylish hedonism? Is it aghast or roused by the behavior on display? Is it corrosive or celebratory? I choose all of the above. It’s at once objectified youth culture hothouse and giddy satirical denouncement. Is Korine creating a millennial Gatsby party or participating in the emptiness of it all? (A key may be the fate of Faith.) It’s often hard to tell with a movie so close to an embodiment of the subject at hand if we’re experiencing a work of understanding or scorn or both at once. My verdict was prone to shifting mid-scene. Either way, it’s artful trash that’s far from Korine’s usual overthought sloppiness; it comes by its loose sliminess, its casual beauty, and its most offensive qualities quite honestly. In fact, one might call it a trash-terpiece.

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