Some films are almost too hard to describe. They defy the basic rules of narrative or character, they march to the beat of their own drum, and take a predictable concept and warp it into something altogether more unusual. Now, one look at the poster for Harmony Korine's 'Spring Breakers' might give you an impression of what to expect. You've got teen starlets in bikinis, a daft-looking James Franco with dreadlocks and fluro colours everywhere. And then, of course, the title. It looks like another dumb teen comedy using any excuse to have scantily clad girls being racy, and dumb guys acting like gormless idiots. Well, it does have both those things in spades - but this oddball film is far from a dumb teen comedy. I'm still not sure what it is, but "dumb" it certainly isn't.
Spring break is approaching, and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) don't have the cash to afford the incredible trip they've been planning all year. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the trio decide to rob a chicken shop for the last bit of cash they need. With their pockets full, they grab their sweet, down-the-line friend Faith (Selena Gomez) and head for Florida, taking advantage of the sun, the beach, the boys and every vice they can get their hands on. However, when the girls find themselves in trouble, their lives become entwined with Alien (James Franco), a rapper gangsta who bails them out but asks for more in return, taking the girls, and the film, on a completely unexpected detour.
Harmony Korine has been around for a while, and though his name isn't well-known, his credits are, especially his work with Larry Clark on 'Kids' (1995) and 'Ken Park' (2002). If his new film proves anything, it's that Korine has an unusual perspective on how image and sound can be used to unexpected effect. 'Spring Breakers' is much more of a sensory experience than a narrative one, and the characters are often kept at arm's distance, cyphers for understanding a generation in the violent throes of gleeful chaos. He approaches the bizarre American ritual of spring break with neither judgement nor sympathy, presenting it as both an idealised wonderland of tanned naked flesh and flowing alcohol, and a dangerous ruin of disregard bathed in vomit and blood. The choreographed chaos is often shown with the kind of artistic slow-motion you'd associate with sweeping landscapes. Layered over this is a pulsating, assaulting soundtrack from Skrillex and Cliff Martinez, and ethereal voice-over from the four leads. It's a very strange experience, and as Alien is introduced and the film takes a startling turn, this tremendous artistic approach leads the audience further into a hallucinatory state where the strangest things can occur. I'm sure this all sounds very vague, but Korine's work with this film is so unusual and unexpected that it makes it very difficult to describe accurately.
'Spring Breakers' is much more of a sensory experience than a narrative one, and the characters are often kept at arm's distance, cyphers for understanding a generation in the violent throes of gleeful chaos.
Just as fearless as the filmmaking are the performances. Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens are both graduates from Disney morning television, and seeing their wholesome image slip away so easily is strangely disquieting. It wouldn't surprise me if this were Korine's intention. All four girls don't seem to balk in the slightest at the less-than-flattering turns in the film, tackling the challenges with relish. In the end, none are playing detailed characters, though Gomez's Faith is the closest the film comes to a protagonist. They are playing images, ideas, the tropes of the kind of teenagers who live for the insanity of spring break. Thankfully, James Franco doesn't throw the film out when he arrives. His recent film work has been less than inspiring, but here he has all the detail and intelligence we'd come to expect from him. Alien is a bizarre creation; the deranged Pied Piper beating the drum for his new playmates. If 'Spring Break' boils down to any kind of theme, it would be that of breaking free from the shackles of your life, and the consequences that come from that. Alien and the girls meet each other at a crucial moment, all looking for something more out of their lives, and offering each other a chance at that.
Whatever expectations you had about 'Spring Breakers', leave them at the door. I doubt we'll find a more unusual "mainstream" (and I use that term loosely) film this year. Harmony Korine has crafted a feast for the senses - the kind of experience that warps all sense of time and space as you watch it. If I had to boil it down to a simple description, it could only be this: try to imagine a film about spring break directed by, of all people, Terrence Malick. That might be as close a review of 'Spring Breakers' can get.