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Does “Spring Breakers” Have Substance Beneath the Style?

July 8, 2013

By John Corrado

Spring Breakers PosterTo watch a film and not know exactly what you thought of the experience is a very peculiar feeling.  Such is the case with Spring Breakers, the latest from provocative indie filmmaker Harmony Korine, which has been the point of many conversations since premiering on the festival circuit last fall.  So does the film have actual substance, or is this all just a work of flashy style?

After becoming a modest success at the independent box office this past March, Spring Breakers will reach a whole new audience when the film is released on Blu-ray & DVD tomorrow.  But any teens who watch the film based on the names of the two former Disney stars in the cast, will find a shock to the system.

Faith (Selena Gomez) and her longtime friends Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) all feel trapped in their mundane college lives, and dream of going to Florida for the wild party scene that erupts every year during spring break.  They fund their trip by robbing a diner, a scene which is captured through a haunting tracking shot that uses the separation of a window to show us the first bursts of actual violence.  When the girls are arrested after a wild night of partying in the Sunshine State, they are bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a rapping gangsta who drags them into the seedy underworld of guns and drug dealing that exists just below the surface of the party scene.  James Franco literally owns the screen, delivering a wildly over the top and incredibly entertaining performance.

People will view Spring Breakers as either a cynical skewering of the increasingly flippant attitudes of modern culture, or a celebration of depraved behaviour where no real life consequences come to the shockingly unlikeable main characters.  Although I like to think that Harmony Korine intended this film to be viewed as the former, I fear that many audiences will see it as the latter.  This is a film chock full of shocking imagery, with abundant nudity, graphic drug use and disturbing violence all colliding in front of the leering camera lens.  The fact that these scenes are repeated almost to the point of tedium just goes to show how quickly people can become comfortable with being bombarded by images of increasingly extreme behaviour.

The distinctive click of a gun being cocked is heard so many times throughout to transition between scenes, that the unmistakable sound starts to resemble that of a beer can being popped open and the tab pushed back.  The fact that we hear this noise so much during Spring Breakers that the sound becomes normal to our ears, might just be the point of the film.  But whether we are supposed to be shocked or become comfortable is the question that plagues my opinion of the work at hand.  Throughout one of the most shockingly memorable scenes, the girls dance with guns on the beach to the sound of the Britney Spears pop song “Everytime,” as the images become intercut with flashes of slow motion violence.

This ironic use of a pop song provides one of the best sequences in the film, as the scenes of partying and false happiness crossed with images of violence provide a sharp juxtaposition between the two worlds that dangerously collide at every possible turn.  But was the point to show the slippery slope between living with no consequences and the lure of violence, or to make us comfortable watching the behaviour at hand?  There are many images that are more off putting than appealing, yet I couldn’t help but admire the way they were brought to the screen.  Many of the same shots and lines of dialogue are repeated to the point that the audience starts to feel like we are also under the influence, trapped in a party that continues long after the initial enjoyment is gone.

The fact that Harmony Korine has captured this feeling is admirable, which has caused some to describe the film as a fantasy.  But a fantasy of what?  Surely even those who aspire to the empty celebrations of spring break do not fantasize about becoming involved with increasingly disturbed violence.  All of these things would make it easy for some to completely write off Spring Breakers as a piece of exploitive trash masquerading as a work of art, and I couldn’t blame them for feeling that way.  Yet I can’t shake some of the images, no matter how hard I try, and feel compelled to look for a message that might not even exist below the surface.  Because surely a film with such an assured visual and auditory style must give way to something deeper that the filmmaker is trying to convey.

Sometimes when a film is hard to interpret, the mere process of putting together a review can help you sort out your mixed feelings.  But even after watching Spring Breakers and writing this article, I still can’t decide what I thought about the film as a whole.  Maybe this sounds like a cheat, an easy way to get out of trying to come up with definitive answers, but I’m not sure if I am able to define what I thought about Spring Breakers into conventional terms of like or dislike.  I certainly feel respect for the way that Harmony Korine has stuck to a completely unique vision, while seeming unfazed by how audiences will react, and he has said in interviews that there are no right or wrong ways to watch the film.

This is a film that is aggressively light on plot and so full of stylistically shocking images, that I’m not even sure what I exactly thought of the experience.  But the hazy visuals and use of sound make this one that is hard to completely shake.  Maybe the thrills that Spring Breakers offers are all on the surface, but the debate of whether or not this stylistic facade gives way to a deeper deconstruction of pop culture is reason enough to recommend watching the film for yourself.

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