Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: Spring Breakers (2013)

Spring Breakers (2013)

Whoa. That’s all I can say about Spring Breakers, aka “the movie where the girls from Wizards of Waverly Place, High School Musical, and Pretty Little Liars run around in bikinis shooting people.” Flush with neon, sex, drugs, booze, guns, and dubstep, Spring Breakers is simultaneously a celebration and critique of gangsta swagger and party-hard hedonism that, to me, simulated the experience of being utterly high on life in a way few movies I’ve seen can match. This is probably the best adaptation of Grand Theft Auto we are ever going to get, in spirit if not in plot.

Speaking of plot: the film is about four college girls from Kentucky, Faith (played by Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, wife of writer/director Harmony Korine), who want to go down to Florida for spring break. Lacking the money, Candy, Brit, and Cotty knock over a restaurant in order to pay for the trip, foreshadowing the downward spiral that the girls go on. Despite the fact that the marketing heavily played up Gomez’s “adult” role, her character is the babyfaced, church-going girl of the group, the one who refuses to do drugs or have sex (though she does wear plenty of bikinis) and is first to go home the moment things start getting real. She’s a good girl who refuses to go bad, saying “screw this, I’m outta here” the moment James Franco’s character, the rapper/small-time drug lord Alien, enters the picture to bail the girls out of jail following a night of debauchery. (Hudgens' and Benson's characters, though, actually do do everything that the trailers have been hyping up, so there's that.)

And speaking of Franco, between this film and Pineapple Express, it’s clear that he has a thing for playing drug dealers, because he makes Alien one of the most compelling characters in the film. Alien is a Grand Theft Auto protagonist distilled into a flesh-and-blood man who is simultaneously despicable and charming, a Scarface aficionado, gun nut, party rapper, and ladies’ man. I wouldn’t call his interaction with Candy, Brit, and Cotty “corrupting” them, since they were already pretty close to morally bankrupt to begin with, but he is the one who turns their spring break getaway from mere drug-fueled debauchery into a world of robbery and bloodshed. Franco redeems himself here for whatever he didn’t bring to the table in Oz the Great and Powerful, here managing to make an utter dirtbag look cool. The girls manage to hold up their end of the film just fine, though apart from Gomez's good girl, they seemed to blend into one another at points, one of the few real complaints that I can raise about this film.

But then, a lot of things in this film seemed to blend together, and that's probably intentional. This film's style can be best described as "'80s Miami chic"; despite being set in the present day, the abundance (nay, tsunami) of neon and the synth-heavy soundtrack make it look and feel like a lost episode of Miami Vice. Large sections of the film are reminiscent of a drug trip, with blurred visuals, cutaways to other moments in the film, dialogue repeating itself, and little audio other than the soundtrack. Harmony Korine has shot quite an unconventional film here, conveying the plot as much through gaudy visuals as through dialogue and events. This is as much a music video as a narrative film; one memorable scene features a montage of robberies to the tune of Britney Spears' "Everytime", and such juxtapositions of pop music and raucous violence and sex are commonplace.

It would be a misjudgment to think that this movie is all music and sleaze, though, because underneath all of that, Korine has given this film several layers of depth that you wouldn't expect from a trashy crime drama about bikini-clad robbers. He actually has quite a bit to say about our culture of "party all the time" that currently permeates Top 40 radio and nightclubs across America. A very strong case can be made that it is the girls, not Alien the drug dealer, who are the real villains of the film; this can be seen right from the opening scene, where one of the girls tells the others to "pretend it's a video game" when they're robbing a store to get the money for their spring break getaway. You get a sense that Candy, Brit, and to a lesser extent Cotty (won't say what happens to make her change her mind), underneath their drunken college girl attitudes, are genuine sociopaths, happily engaging in armed robbery and eventually murder all in the name of having the ultimate spring break adventure. The moment at which this became crystal clear was when Candy and Brit, the two college girls who, until spring break, had never engaged in felony crimes, are calling Alien, the drug lord who has probably seen more than they can imagine, a pussy for having second thoughts about the climatic gunfight with the rival drug lord that they are preparing for. This movie conflates the "it's all about me" attitude of youth culture with the utter amorality of criminal life, drawing some disturbing conclusions about the former's glamorization of the latter through pop music and video games. According to Korine, most of us are just like Candy, Brit, and Cotty -- one step away from being gang bangers not out of economic pressure, but because it's awesome.

Score: 5 out of 5

Its hyper-kinetic, '80s-meets-dubstep style alone makes it a thrill to watch, but it's also got a brain in its pretty little head, offering a stinging critique of our culture of partying and Scarface worship. This film is damn near a masterpiece, and deserves to be seen more than once.

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