The most important thing to understand about Spring Breakers is that it’s exactly what it is, and it’s also a lot more. Unquestionably, it’s a leering, hedonistic celebration of teenagers objectifying and dehumanizing themselves in the name of adolescent, boundary-testing rebellion. But it’s also, in both form and content, an objective portrait of the way that popular culture has virtually obliterated the possibility for American youth to experience something without a numbing deluge of media references and contexts, and therefore with any impulse at all to take responsibility for themselves, much less acknowledge that there are repercussions at all.
All of which is why Spring Breakers will make you hate teenagers, but understand them as well.
On a purely experiential level, it’s hard to develop much sympathy for the four girls at the center of the film. Although they’re playful and naïve at the beginning of the film, their indifference to the prospect of staging a robbery in order to get the money that they want – not to mention their delusional desperation to “see the world” via a week in, of all places, St. Petersburg, Florida – makes it difficult not to judge them as ignorant, if not just plain stupid. But what’s interesting about writer-director Harmony Korine’s film is that he sort of expertly allows reality to infiltrate their ambitions, becoming an encroaching reminder that there is a world out there where they may eventually have to answer for their behavior.
In fact, it seems almost fair to characterize Spring Breakers as a horror movie, where reality itself is the killer. The four female characters that drive the film are scantily-clad coeds with sex and debauchery on the brain, and it’s through their indulgence of vices that they become vulnerable and, in some cases, fall prey to the unstoppable force to which all transgressors must eventually answer. But even as an overstatement of the film’s central theme, the analogy of ignored imminent danger holds up: they hatch a plan to rob a fried-chicken restaurant to “raise” the money for their trip, inspiring one another with gangsta rap platitudes (“don’t be scared of sh*t!”) and encouraging reminders to treat the experience “like a video game.” They stay willfully ignorant of the very real possibility that they could be arrested or possibly killed in the process.
The story progresses similarly, essentially picking off characters when they admit to themselves, or perhaps the audience, that their circumstances are too real to be ignored. Selena Gomez’ Faith is the first to depart the film, after finding herself incarcerated and subsequently rescued by Alien (James Franco), a flossy but equally oblivious drug dealer whose claims that he cares deeply for her are dubious at best. Placed into an environment where she feels wildly uncomfortable – including a mixed-race bar/pool hall where its patrons leer menacingly (to her, at least) – she succumbs to her fears and leaves “St. Pete” for the safety of her grandmother and the church group to which she once defended her older, misbehaving friends.
Alien’s charms prove irresistible to the other three girls, Cotty (Rachel Korine), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), who eagerly agree to not only stay with him, but eventually work as gun-toting thugs during his robberies of vacationing spring breakers. As the stakes of the girls’ crime spree with Alien intensify – Archie (Gucci Mane), Alien’s best friend and mentor turned competitor, threatens to kill him if they don’t back off of his turf – their own sense of empowerment only evolves. They have sex with Alien together, and when he says that he intends to hit Archie at his house, they tease him, forcing him to admit that he’s scared to go through with the plan. It’s actually in making this admission that Alien becomes vulnerable, temporarily human, and in thematic terms, it’s the reason why he is eventually killed during their attack: although earlier he advertised his Scarface bona fides to the girls to impress them and showed off his quite profitable drug business, Alien now stands alone in his room, guns in his hands, trying to psyche himself up to pull off what is not just another criminal act, but one which he knows may result in his death.
Simultaneously, the girls make calls to their parents and loved ones, offering the false perspective of experiences from which they’ve learned nothing – because they have scarcely acknowledged their repercussions enough to allow them a deeper emotional impact. Both girls announce that they plan to work harder, and do better – but why? Their reactions seem born from the expectation that they should learn from these events, but not from surviving or going through the events themselves. And this is also why they remain entirely untouched by the bullets that are fired at them as they invade Archie’s compound: they are exactly invulnerable, because they show no vulnerability. No humanity. They completely ignore the reality of their situation, because it evokes to them the sort of drug-related shootout that they’ve seen dozens of times on television and in movies – which, because they’re on a screen, don’t really exist and don’t mean anything.
The reason for this is that while not in absolute terms, teenagers are on a daily basis bombarded with imagery – sex, violence, crime, morality – and all of it is constructed via or as a narrative of some kind. The “saga” of a young man who grew up without the right parental attention and who went on to shoot up a school. The high school dropout who took a job as a low-level drug dealer only to find himself at the center of a smuggling ring that exploded into tragic violence. But even without violence as a component or consequence of a person’s actions, the same is true. “Reality” television offers convenient storylines where people – as character types – go through experiences to achieve goals and earn perspectives. And the fact that it is all seen, captured, recorded and broadcast, removes it from the realm of the real, where things happen to people, good and bad, and they may learn something, or they may not, or they may even live or die.
Our collective cultural memory has a reference point -- a film or book or song – for virtually any experience. Kids no longer just get drunk at a high school party; they go to a “high school house party” like the one in a John Hughes movie, or Korine’s Kids, or whatever else they’ve been exposed to, and filter their own experiences through the narratives that were created in fiction around those universal moments. Spring break is itself a cartoonish rite of passage for so many movies and television shows that the film’s opening scenes, of women flashing their breasts or supplicating themselves as men spray them with alcohol, seems as much as anything like an advertisement for what teenagers can or should expect when the time comes for them to take that journey.
And it’s even in the film’s structure that this sort of dissociation occurs, and what allows viewers to experience directly the perspective of youth today. Before some sequences even begin, we see their repercussions – at least in story terms. Alien’s bloodstained hand reaching for his gun after playing the piano, long before we know whose blood it is, or why it’s on him. With each ellipsis of imagery, the girls, and by proxy, viewers take a step back from the visceral impact of staging a robbery; having a destructive party; getting arrested; and so on and so forth, seeing each sequence only as the sum total of the narrative context in which it is introduced, including the overlap of “immediate” perspective.
It’s as if everything that happens should have quotation marks around it; because even as it’s happening to them – under the pretense of them being real people – it’s only a fictional story that adds up to them learning life lessons that are essentially impenetrable. Because they refuse, or are incapable of, acknowledging that they were involved in, much less responsible for or affected by what they went though. What they did. And as an actual consequence, they remain only defined by what they think they are supposed to learn, the skin-deep insights of a boilerplate survival narrative.
Whether that makes Spring Breakers a good or bad film is largely immaterial – and I admit even after seeing it twice, I’m not sure which of those I think it is. But it does seem to be the most insightful, and incisive, look at teenagers of any film in recent memory. And, ironically, even though both during the film and in considering this piece I remain uncertain how likeable or sympathetic the four female characters in it actually are, the fact that they prove themselves more complex than they seem – by extension making real teenagers infinitely more interesting than they seem – is not merely an artistic victory for Korine, but a cultural comment that deserves far more scrutiny than it receives, for our sake, and teenagers’ as well.
Warning: Trailer Is NSFW