I’m not sure if Spring Breakers is a good movie. I’m not sure if I enjoyed watching it. I am sure, however, that Harmony Korine’s sexually explicit, aesthetically unhinged, narratively distant 2013 film gave me a lot to think about. For a movie that many people dismissed as a vapid fantasy of teen bacchanalia, that’s quite the accomplishment. Here’s what I was thinking as the movie unfolded in all of its jarring glory.
The “Snapchat generation”
The film opens with a familiar set of images: slow-mo shots of a wild party on the beaches of South Florida. Twenty-somethings gesticulate wildly, cups in hand, yelping like wild animals. You can find similar images in any number of B-list pop music videos and desperate magazine ads craving the attention of young people who just want to “have a good time.” But there’s one small difference. The party people aren’t looking at each other. They’re staring straight into the camera, gazing at us even as the party rages on around them.
Korine intersperses more snippets from this generic party sequence throughout the rest of the movie, a constant reminder of the never-ending undercurrent of mayhem lurking within every young mind. (I’m not saying I agree with Korine’s characterization of youth in this film, but it’s not hard to see his critiques.) Every time these shots popped up, I found myself thinking about the rise of Instagram and Snapchat, platforms which allow young people like me to manufacture “moments” – snapshots of our perpetually shifting emotions, or at least the ones we want other people to see. The partygoers in Florida are staring into the camera in the hopes that it will capture their moments, whatever those might be.
The relationship between popular music and youth culture
Spring Breakers is full of references to the popular music that many people would argue “defines a generation.” I would argue that this phrase is meaningless and reductive, except for the people who believe it does. After all, a generation is made up of people, and people are inherently diverse and disparate, rarely categorizable in such overarching fashion. Nonetheless, the movie’s characters use pop music as a means of manipulating the construction of their narratives. Dubstep reflects the aggression to which they aspire. Nicki Minaj’s “Moment 4 Life” clarifies their desire to make meaning out of every piece of their lives. Britney Spears’ “Everytime”…well, I’m not quite sure what it does, besides providing a showcase for James Franco’s earnest ivory-tickling. Pop music, whether crass or earnest, infiltrates individual consciousness and affects our perception of the world.
It’s no surprise that the characters indulge in plenty of lascivious behavior. It’s also no surprise that Korine frequently lingers on the naked or nearly-naked female body with a lust and reverence that occasionally verges on pornographic. The question is whether Korine means to satirize or condemn popular culture for objectifying the female body or whether he’s guilty of the same exploitation. The answer is: probably both, though the proportions are unclear. The movie never allows the audience to easily identify it as pure trash or pure art, perhaps because Korine is smart enough to realize that you can’t have one without a little of the other. Regardless, I never got the sense that Korine was unaware of these contradictions. For whatever reason, he didn’t want to resolve these contradictions within the film itself. That’s up to us.
The “We Can’t Stop” of movies
If you muted the sound on this movie and blasted a loop of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” instead, your experience probably wouldn’t differ from the traditional one as much as you would think. That’s because Spring Breakers is engaging with the same emotions as Miley’s extremely successful pop song, albeit in a more elliptical and less quantifiable way. “We can’t stop,” Miley whines, expressing not only defiance but also desperation and frustration. Whether she’s willing to say it or not, partying isn’t the universally satisfying experience that pop music makes it out to be. Mike WiLL Made It’s beat registers some of this contradiction, which finds its way into Spring Breakers. When Selena Gomez’s Faith bursts into tears at the thought of hanging around for one more second with James Franco’s monumentally sleazy rapper Alien, her friends don’t want her to leave, but if you look carefully, they’re sympathetic. The lifestyle that these young women claim to want is as wearying as it is exhilarating, as is the experience of watching Spring Breakers. “We can say what we want,” Miley says. Korine and his characters seem to be saying, “We can’t stop, but maybe we should.”
The ongoing battle over gun laws
Yes, this film got the wheels of politics churning in my brain. I’ll avoid indulging my ideological leanings because they’re not relevant to the conversation this film starts. But it’s impossible to watch Vanessa Hudgens’ Candy curling her fingers into a gun and exclaiming “Pow!” at every opportunity and not think of the consequences of pervasive violence in pop culture. The central foursome brandishes weapons with delight, twirling them with reckless abandon while James Franco shows off his musical chops, stuffing them down Franco’s throat in the movie’s most blatantly “shocking” moment, and eventually unloading on Alien and the rest of the culture that’s enveloped them over the course of the film. Korine doesn’t explicitly render judgment about the proliferation of this violent behavior or the casualness of its deployment, but these scenes are nonetheless unsettling and evocative of real-life traumas.
“Celebrities” giving “performances” that rely on their “star power”
Perhaps this film’s most inspired elements lie in the casting. The central quartet is comprised of former Disney star and rapidly maturing pop singer Selena Gomez, former Disney star and rapidly dwindling pop singer Vanessa Hudgens, Pretty Little Liars star Ashley Benson and Korine’s wife Rachel. Hudgens and Benson in particular seem to relish the opportunity to break out of their squeaky-clean bubbles, while Gomez’s narrative arc mirrors the actress’ real-life evolution from child star to Disney sitcom queen to pop aspirant. None of these actresses are doing much in the way of “acting,” but that’s almost the point – their behaviors are of a piece with their positions in popular culture, and our understanding of their interactions derives partially from our perceptions of these actresses outside of movies.
Meanwhile, the unimaginably eccentric Franco is doing quite a bit of acting in service of a character who is disturbingly sympathetic despite his utter disregard for the consequences of moral deviance. That Franco’s real-life persona is multidimensional, encompassing cultures both high and low, adds layers where there should be none. Alien is a walking stereotype of 21st century white entitlement who nearly transforms into a three-dimensional human being by the end of the film.
Spring Breakers is something else. Is it, to borrow the title of another 2013 movie starring James Franco, “great and powerful,” or is it no better than the movie you’d expect from the signifiers? The answer, like so many others, is complicated.