Whether you love it or hate it, Spring Breakers has a kind of mythic presence in popular culture for the last decade. Its extreme raunchiness, high–profile cast, and distinctive style are all grounds to remember this gloriously distasteful piece of cinema. It's also a tremendously polarizing film, hailed as both an explosive commentary on morally bankrupt youth culture and a gross trainwreck with poorly written characters and empty–headed superficiality. While unnerving, Spring Breakers is, in fact, a good movie. It makes the conscious decision to subvert the ordinary markers of good storytelling in exchange for a dreamlike editing style full of hypnotic, auditory, and visual resonances. There may be a bounty of things to hate about Spring Breakers but none of them can fully undermine Harmony Korine’s ability to develop such a dark and twisted spring break fantasy.
Korine’s filmography is dotted with gritty stories, from the 1995 film Kids which chronicles the lives of a group of Manhattan teenagers during the AIDS crisis, to the 2009 experimental Trash Humpers about a gang of sociopathic elders. The Beach Bum is Korine’s first feature film since Spring Breakers and is markedly lighthearted compared to his previous works. If anything, Spring Breakers bridges the gap between the subversive, bizarre works preceding it and the balmy, Floridian comedy that is The Beach Bum, which stars Matthew McConaughey as a party animal/novelist named Moondog.
The brilliance of Spring Breakers is its capacity to straddle grit and glamour in a way that is at times alluring and sexy, and at others, remarkably unpleasant. Lyrical voiceovers enhance the magical realism of the film, where handheld cameras clash with an oversaturated palette and monochromatic lighting schemes. Spring Breakers is self–aware, and by knowing its place, it succeeds, fully deserving of its contested cult status.
The challenging thing about arguing for Spring Breakers’ brilliance is that it truly needs to be seen to be believed. The greatest strengths of the film are not its plot or its characters, which are intentionally simple, serving as vessels for the film’s more compelling storytelling techniques. On the surface, Spring Breakers does appear to work a gimmick, particularly in the sense that the main characters are four young women clad in bikinis for the entirety of the film, with former teen stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens among them. James Franco’s portrayal of a rags–to–riches drug dealer who goes by the name Alien certainly outdoes the performances of his co–stars. Alien’s twangy Southern drawl is haunting, uncomfortable, at times bordering on insidious. Thus, it's perfect for the poetic narration of the sun–drenched montage that serves as a backdrop for Alien’s dubious activities. There is so much wrong about him and the world he inhabits, it is no surprise that once the girls get involved with Alien, violence and destruction follow.
Spring Breakers is trashy. That isn’t up for debate. Yet its moody style and overt 'wrongness' make the experience of watching this film a perplexing combination of discomfort and excitement. There is reason to embrace hedonistic behavior on–screen, especially in ways that have aesthetic or outward appeal. The point is to know it’s wrong, while still preserving a twisted curiosity and desire to be part of the action. Much like the more conventionally acclaimed film The Wolf of Wall Street, Spring Breakers points the ways our society glamorizes hedonism. The ubiquity of seeking pleasure and thrill is amplified in these excessive accounts. It is our job to acknowledge impulses of greed and self–indulgence in watching these films while simultaneously embedding ourselves in the action. Spring Breakers asks us to be both intrigued and disgusted by its subversive content. Though Korine’s latest film preserves the bright, beachy aesthetic and party lifestyle of its predecessor, its comedic tone explores the notion of having too much fun in the sun in a markedly different way than Spring Breakers. Ultimately, there is a reason why this supposed trainwreck of a film still excites the imagination, and its accomplishments are fully deserving of contemporary cult status.