Two weeks ago, three teens shot a 22-year-old man in the back and killed him. They said they did it because they were bored. One week ago, a pair of teens beat an 88-year-old war veteran to death for the money in his pockets, of which there was, presumably, not much. There are good people and there are bad people, and often age has little to do with where each of us falls on that spectrum. Yet there is something especially disturbing about a young person committing atrocities. It’s important to us that youth equate to innocence or naiveté, that young people stay young, and nothing evaporates innocence like taking a life. Harmony Korine understands this relationship our community has with its young people, and plays with it liberally in Spring Breakers.
Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are BFFs gearing up for Spring Break in St. Petersburg. While their college campus slowly turns into a ghost town, the foursome find themselves without the funds to make the exodus, and decide to rob a local restaurant and its patrons. With wads of cash in hand the girls hop a bus to Spring Break, where they stock up on drugs and booze and scooters, and become a seamless part of the churning hedonist masses. After being arrested for possession, they’re bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a big-time dealer/small-time MC whose entire being seems lifted from an early-aughts rap video. This personification of hip-hop trash culture pulls something even more twisted out of the girls—who are ultimately motivated by pushing limits—and past a line that few of their peers would consciously cross.
Spring Break is a compelling device because it’s born of one of our culture’s grandest ironies: the fervent belief of college kids that they need a break. College is a break. College is freedom. And every year, right on cue, millions of upper-middle class undergrads convince themselves that a weeklong caesura of debauchery is deserved, is needed. Yet Spring Break is no break, as Harmony Korine delights in reminding us ad nauseum. Spring Breakers Cinematographer Benoît Debie (Enter the Void) finds much of the film’s energy in raw footage of real spring breakers, guzzling booze and smoking joints and boiling with the pent up juice of primed life. Anyone over 25 will find these scenes more exhausting than enticing, less a tribute to youth than an outright eulogy. Debie and Korine use an abundance of VHS-quality shots, evoking something long lost, something that can’t and won’t exist ever again: the swan song of youth.
This idea—an obituary for innocence—is what makes Spring Breakers cogent. We are all mourning the loss of our vitality, and we’re mourning it from some arbitrary date in our mid-20s when we first come to recognize its approach, ’til the day that we die (or, if you’re diligent and lucky, the day you make peace with it). The essence of “Spring Break” is the idea of achieving “otherness”, achieving freedom from the miserable tedium of day-to-day, and if there’s one piece of this movie you can relate to it’s the utter elation of escaping tedium. Spring Breakers chews on a bleak urgency most of us spend our days swallowing: the enduring guilt of knowing that we’ll die someday and that we’re not doing anything about it. What makes this a Harmony Korine film though, is the fact that his heroes aren’t driven by this fact to make the most of their existence, but driven simply to do. It seems not to matter much whether their actions are good or bad, as long as they are active, which makes Spring Breakers a fundamentally terrifying portrait of our nation’s youth at the beginning of the 21st century.
James Franco’s performance wins the film, and sits in the top 3 of an already fascinatingly diverse collection of Franco characters. Yet when paired with this foursome—or more specifically, Benson’s Brit and Hudgen’s Candy, who take the film’s thesis of a nihilistic devotion to pure activity all the way to its conclusion—Alien becomes an effectively unnecessary character. His refrain of “Spring Break Forever” serves to give these girls a focus, somewhere to put the vast, negative energy of their restless ennui, but their heedless compulsion to self-serve is what motivates Korine’s story in the first place. Whether or not he admires this impulse is up for debate, but when taken in the context of the world we live in, it’s hard to ignore the darkness of such unabashed autocracy. And it’s hard to ignore the truth of it. While most of us can claim a friend or relative of this approximate age who isn’t even capable of viewing the world the way Korine’s heroines do, there is nonetheless a scary authenticity to what he’s presented here. As the news can’t help but remind us, these people exist. Sometimes they come in forms we expect, sometimes they don’t. But the world we’ve all created, whether on purpose or simply with a self-preserving indifference, has made them a part of our reality.