When Harmony Korine was writing Spring Breakers — this is just a guess — he must have filled the script with cautionary-tale cliches, then gone back and reversed all of them. Nothing in the movie plays out as you’d expect. It isn’t a cautionary tale, but it’s not really an empowerment tale, either; it’s just a tale (though just barely, since Korine still disdains narrative). Korine follows the characters and watches them, occasionally evoking the beauty of the moment, the jags of excitement and fear, the stretches of contented restfulness. This movie that opened at #6 at the box office, becoming the most lucrative amd acclaimed film Korine will likely ever make, is a trancelike tone poem, a fantasia about freedom, or at least what certain debased segments of American culture consider freedom.
Plot-wise, what we have here could fit into a B-movie directed by Andy Sidaris, T.V. Mikels, or Russ Meyer. Four college girls — Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife) — try to scrape up enough cash to light out for spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida. They come up short, so Brit and Candy rob a diner while Cotty drives the getaway car; Faith, whose struggle with religion is suggested by her name, isn’t involved and only finds out about it later. Once in Florida, the girls lose themselves in partying until they get arrested during a hotel sweep. They’re out of money and can’t post bail, but someone comes to their rescue: Alien (James Franco), a wannabe rapper and self-styled gangsta festooned with crude tattoos and sporting a gold grill.
Alien looks like bad news. But he’s not the kind of bad news that decades of movies have conditioned us to expect. Underneath his Scarface pose and rancid Korine-style dialogue, Alien is surprisingly soulful, almost childlike, and his big “Look at my shit” scene is already a classic and an internet meme. Korine achieves greatness here when Alien discovers, to his delight, that at least two of the girls are as hardcore as he is. They all come from a Gen-Y moral swamp where nothing has consequences because everyone’s a winner if they try. Spring Breakers unexpectedly and movingly develops layers of feeling, and Korine sustains the greatness when Alien picks out Britney Spears’ “Everytime” on the piano and three of the girls, in pink ski masks, dance around with AK-47s. At times like this, Korine’s elliptical and seemingly nonsensical approach coalesces to plug directly and cleanly into thoughts and emotions we never knew were there. He’s been doing that since 1997’s Gummo, by the way; this is just another of Korine’s art projects, only with a deceptive mainstream glaze (and a marketing hook that apparently worked). Spring Breakers has less in common with something like Project X than with Korine’s previous effort, Trash Humpers. (I’d dearly love to see someone program that double feature.)
With the aid of cinematographer Benoît Debie, Korine makes most of the movie (other than some on-the-fly camcorder stuff) look like neon sherbet, lush and candylike, with a menacing undertone from the score by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex. I go on a bit about pure cinema, but this is the clearest American example of it in some time. Korine judges nothing: the crime scenes buzz with outlaw excitement, and the menage a trois between Alien and his two favorite “soulmates” in his pool is undeniably erotic, a contrast to the aggressively sexual but unsexy show-us-your-boobs spring-break footage earlier in the film. I haven’t read any Korine interviews about the movie, so I don’t know if he’s been gassing on about the moral message, if any, but I don’t think he has one, truly, or needs one. It’s a dreamy riff on events we almost certainly, at some points, are not supposed to take seriously.
The actresses, mostly veterans of tween-pop entertainment, communicate a sense of numbness, hungry-ghost appetitiveness that, in at least two cases, will never be sated. The movie belongs to James Franco, an intelligent and experimental actor who sometimes seems to feel superior to his roles (definitely including Oz the Great and Powerful). Here, though, with Korine as his art-installment kindred spirit, Franco comes to play, going far beyond type or stereotype into a poseur’s fantasy of himself. Alien has a rapist’s big-bad-wolf grin upon introduction, and our inner alarms wail sharply, but Franco and Korine know exactly what they’re doing: Alien, who never actually harms a hair on any of the girls’ heads and seems like more of a lover than a fighter — and ultimately less dangerous than his two proteges — is the movie’s romantic center, and Korine eroticizes Alien’s grubby, tat-speckled body more than any of the girls’. Actual spring breakers will probably loathe the movie; it’s really for the pale art majors who never went.