The Spring Breakification of the Disney Princess Complex
"All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun," goes Jean-Luc Godard's quip. Add to that a few more girls and their bikinis and you have the rough formula for Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, which looks like the most expensive Girls Gone Wild video ever made and feels like a grindhouse version of a 1950s beach-party movie: Where the Boys Are Pimps and Gangstas. Or Gidget Goes to Hell. As in the best work by Korine — the agile agent provocateur whose credits include the screenplay for Kids and, most recently, the shot-on-VHS vagabond vaudeville Trash Humpers — it is impossible to say where exploitation ends and deconstruction begins.
The setting of Spring Breakers is the Florida coast, where several centuries of explorers — from Ponce de Léon to 2 Live Crew — have come seeking the fount of eternal youth, and where huddled masses of frostbitten coeds migrate at the end of each winter in pursuit of sun, sex and their own quasi-immortality. Korine shows from the start that he's fully plugged into spring break's mythic dimension, opening the film with a long, slow-mo montage of crotch grabbing, ass shaking, beer-soaked boob jiggling and lips doing the most indecent things to Popsicles, all framed against the glittering Gulf of Mexico. It's shot in anamorphic widescreen and retina-burning fluorescent colors, courtesy of the French cinematographer Benoît Debie, a veteran collaborator of Gaspar Noé. Korine turns the sequence into a Boschian invitation to decadence, a sun-soaked postcard from Caligula's Rome.
What we're seeing may be the fantasy of four undergraduate friends — Brit, Faith, Candy and Cotty — jonesing for a primal escape. In a casting coup, the girls are played by Disney and Teen People princesses — erstwhile Zac Efron and Justin Bieber paramours, Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, along with Pretty Little Liars star Ashley Benson—who don't so much toy with their good-girl images as set them ablaze. (They're joined by Korine's real-life wife, Rachel, who has no such reputation to implode.) Never mind who plays whom, loss of identity among the gyrating spring-break mass being one of the movie's dominant themes. These Cinderellas all dream of the Florida ball (or, given the lewd drawings we see two of them making in their history-class notebooks, balls), but a cash-flow problem threatens to leave them stranded on campus. So, with little compunction, they decide to hold up a local diner, with squirt guns and ski masks and a Godardian resolve to transform life into cinema: "Just fuckin' pretend it's a video game. Act like you're in a movie or something." What follows is nothing if not bravura moviemaking — a robbery filmed in one continuous take from the POV of the getaway car as it circles the outside of the building with Faith (the nice Christian girl of the bunch) at the wheel.
The newly flush quartet then hightail it to St. Petersburg Beach, where they meet-cute the aptly named Alien, a corn-rowed, elaborately tattooed hip-hop star with a sideline in drug and arms dealing, and a mouth full of silver teeth that glisten like a werewolf's. Alien is played by James Franco, who is at first unrecognizable. Franco is said to have modeled his portrayal on the real underground Florida rapper Dangeruss (aka Russ Curry); and while one doubts Spring Breakers will provoke any Argo-like debates over how accurately art imitates life, there's no question that Alien represents the apotheosis of Franco's hydra-headed career as matinee idol, doctoral candidate, soap star and gallery artist. It's a full-blown Method performance (with an emphasis on "meth") that can also be seen as a knowing lampoon of Method acting. In any case, it's a consistent astonishment. Franco and Korine are so suited to collaboration, it's amazing it didn't happen sooner — two prankster artists whose straight-faced self-parody can skirt the sublime. You leave the theater with Alien's growling mantra, "spring break forevah," echoing in your head like a cantata.
Heralded as Korine's most conventional, accessible film (mainly because of its cast), Spring Breakers may in fact be his most experimental. Particularly in the final third, working with the editor Douglas Crise (Babel), he achieves something close to a sustained psychotropic state. Time splinters into a subjective chronology of flashbacks and foreshadowing, all set to a driving electronic dance music soundtrack by composer Cliff Martinez (who previously created the retro-electronica score for Drive) and EDM guru Skrillex. Punctuating the trance are vignettes that could have sprung from no other artistic consciousness: a poolhall of perdition where Korine mingles his cast with some of St. Pete's real, Bukowskian locals; the girls' falling-down-drunk parking-lot rendition of Britney Spears' "... Baby One More Time"; and the pièce de résistance, Franco's piano-ballad cover of Spears' "Everytime," delivered with startling sincerity. At such moments, Spring Breakers seems to be holding a funhouse mirror up to the face of youth-driven pop culture, leaving it — and us — uncertain whether to laugh, recoil in horror or marvel at its strange beauty. All I know is I couldn't wait to see it a second time.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.