Director: Harmony Korine
Runtime: 94 minutes
James Franco seemed to be hitting another unfortunate low in his career earlier this month. His work in Sam Raimi's CGI-drenched Oz The Great and Powerful recalled his lifeless work as Oscar co-host in 2011. Yet only a week later, Franco has achieved redemption via a gonzo turn in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. Part exploitation flick and part art film, the film traces the misadventures of four young college students gone rogue in southern Florida. Yet despite the presence of a scantily clad quartet of heroines, it's Franco who impresses the most, and whose work is enough to save Korine's latest from drowning in repetition.
When Spring Breakers begins, we're flooded with all of the images we've come to expect from the modern spring break experience: drinking, partying, bared breasts, etc... Only moments later we're thrown from the beach to the classroom. After various repeated lines and scenes of wondering about how they'll pay for tickets to St. Petersburg, Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) rob a local restaurant and grab their Jesus-loving friend Faith (Selena Gomez). Everything is booze and neon-soaked fun until the group is caught in possession of cocaine. It's then that they meet rapper Alien (Franco), who bails them out and takes them under his seedy wing.
What follows is a veritable orgy of sights and sounds, as Korine and cinematographer Benoit Debie (who DP'd the similarly glow-y Enter the Void) plunge us into a world that gradually becomes grittier and grimier. Some of the girls are cut out to hang with Alien. Some aren't. As the group whittles down, Spring Breakers starts to inch toward a narrative with some semblance of direction. The further we're led down the rabbit hole, the more mesmerizing the film becomes, even as some of its imagery repulses.
Franco's involvement in the plot is part of what allows the film to cohere more as it goes along. The actor feels fully committed here, equal parts captivating and unnerving. This isn't a figure who seems like he could explode at any minute at another person. Instead, he's the sort of man who seems to attract said explosions. Franco is the embodiment of the sort of "gangsta" life that the girls (well, at least two of them) are drawn towards. To a point. As much as Korine may indulge in nudity, montages, and violence, the film still ends as something of a cautionary tale. The spring break starts as the ultimate escape from reality, but it ends up exposing the girls to more unpleasantness than they ever dreamed of encountering.
Yet with Franco getting the most 'character' to work with, there isn't much left for the rest of the cast. That may be partially intentional, but at times one wishes the central quartet were more than just party girl ciphers learning about their own limits. They spend so much time living the gangsta bimbo life that there isn't much about them that's compelling. Gomez's Faith comes closest, as she's the first to feel uncomfortable about the group's shenanigans, but it's all rather surface-oriented.
Thankfully the film has Korine, Debie, and a driving score by Cliff Martinez and dubstep poster child Skrillex to lend the film an arty, modern mystique amid the depravity. As others have said, there are moments here that, due to the score, photography, and editing, feel like a Girls Gone Wild video as imagined by Terrence Malick (or a super horny, college-aged cinephile equivalent). The soundtrack is also quite stacked, and a sequence featuring a lesser-known Britney Spears ballad, though oddly hilarious, is easily the film's biggest triumph. From the technical side, Spring Breakers has a smooth aesthetic that helps offset the limited dialogue and somewhat slow plot (it takes far too long for the girls to finally get to their spring break locale).
The film's final stretches are also among its finest, yet they still ring hollow. There are moments when Korine seems a little too devoted to indulging in the seedy side of spring break, to the point where he saps the film of its bite. And, with the film's teeth whittled down, Korine's point really can't be more than a thin one, that is just barely propped up by the atmosphere generated by Debie's stunning lensing and the score. Korine tries to accomplish the always-tricky task of having his thematic cake and eating it too. In some ways, he gets away with it, but not without making a bit of a mess along the way, one that is sometimes a little too big to ignore.