Spring Breakers, in which Disney Channel idols Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens shed their wholesome image as slutty, amoral substance abusers alongside Ashley Benson, of teen thriller series Pretty Little Liars, and the director's fantastically mis-cast wife, Rachel Korine, I was not "dubious" so much as I was instantly and utterly repulsed.
Shorter: no, I did not go into Spring Breakers with an open mind. Tragically, even we film bloggers are but humans, given to being controlled by our passions and biases. On the internet! It is truly unbelievable.
Spring Breakers is about a cluster of college girls, Faith (Gomez) and the other three (Hudgens, Benson, Korine) - look, if the script and directing isn't going to make any serious, concerted attempt to differentiate between them, fucked if I'm going to - who want so badly to go to Florida for spring break. Tragically, they are short of cash, so without telling Faith until later, the other three hold up a diner with very realistic squirt guns. From there, it's off to several days of drinking so much beer, and smoking so much pot, and snorting so much cocaine, and crossing paths with the charismatically disgusting Alien (James Franco, in an extraordinarily committed performance that gets wearying long before the movie ends), who makes the charming gesture of paying the fines after the four girls end up being a little too rowdy and ending up in jail for it. This, of course, hides a Darker Purpose; Faith keys into it fairly quickly, but the other three either don't notice or more likely don't care, and thus end up as the pawns in Alien's sordid little drug empire.
For a simple scenario, Spring Breakers has a surprisingly large amount to unpack, so let's start with the snarky, low-hanging fruit: this is essentially Slut-Shaming: The Movie. For all the chatter about how much Korine is celebrating the institution of spring break vs. condemning and satirising it, there's really very little doubt that he actively hates his characters, taking every possible moment to insult and mock them. Several times, we hear the content of a voicemail left for a parent or grandparent, in which one of the girls (usually Faith) speaks with glowing, innocent phrases about the uplifiting, exciting world they have entered, all beautiful and holy and magical, while the imagery underneath is filled with chaotically edited shots of alcohol splashing off of naked breasts, illegal acts being performed by the dozens, and generally animalistic behavior that's at a 180° from the breathless promises of "I want to come here with you next year, Grandma", or whatever. It is slick, nihilistic irony of the most self-satisfied and unattractive sort, and it is merely the the most obvious expression of the film's totally functionary view of its female characters, named or unnamed, clothed or unclothed. From at least the moment of that diner robbery, Spring Breakers adopts a tone of moral panic different from something like Reefer Madness only in that Spring Breakers is an exceedingly well-crafted movie and Reefer Madness is a dizzy mass of sheer incompetence.
And if it were as simple as all that, how easy life would be. But like I said, there's a lot to unpack here, for Korine is far too smart not to have anticipated that someone like me would come up with an argument like that, and he laces Spring Breakers with some kind of solution: it's not just a movie recoiling in terror at expressions of female sexuality by exaggerating them to the point of an absurd crime thriller, it's a parody of that tendency in a male-dominated media landscape! This is the same out Korine built into the ugly, pointless Trash Humpers, his last feature - the "I meant to do that" defense, and the hell of it is, he absolutely did mean to do that, there's no doubt about it. But frankly, that kind of post-modern bet-hedging is at least as tiresome as open misogyny and shallow gawking at half-naked women, and considerably more nihilistic: it's all but admitting that the point of making the movie isn't to get at any emotion or even intellectual conceit, but simply to bait people (the whole point of casting Hudgens, Gomez, and Benson in the first place). Frankly, I'm not even a little bit sorry that I just don't give a shit.
(It's also pretty unfortunately race-baiting, with every African-American character some manner of an interchangable thug, and the seedy, devilish Alien adopting the tackiest stereotypical elements of African-American life and proudly noting that he was the only white kid on the street where he grew up. And this is something Korine does not seem to have noticed, which makes it awfully easy to slam the movie with it. Boo! Bad, racist movie!)
I'm inclined to write the whole thing, but then the really rough part comes along: this is astonishingly well-made. Superficially, it's gorgeous: Korine and cinematographer Benoît Debie coat the film in a blanket of day-glo colors that almost levitate off the screen, simultaneously underlining the degree of high-energy fun that spring break represents to the characters while also suggesting the artificiality and shrillness that the movie ultimately reveals youth culture to be. The film utilises non-continuity editing, colliding moments and statements in an emotional throughline that has only a meager relationship to chronology, after the fashion of Terrence Malick. It is, in short, a cunning movie, one that communicates its message through a variety of methods, from the ironic counterpoint of sound and image already noted - which is done again when Alien sings a Britney Spears ballad, musically lovely as it is lyrically inane, over images of violent crime - to the tiniest details of how scenes are blocked. It is the perfect version of itself, really. The part of me that urgently, ideologically cares more about how films tell their stories than the content of the stories they tell finds all of this transfixing, and wants me to praise it as a impeccably constructed fantasia on youth culture, all the more cutting as a satire because it is so superficially handsome. The part of me that has a brain and a heart finds this all irredeemably toxic, and great artistry in service of that doesn't make it any less nasty or hateful, and sometimes you have to go with your morality, not your aesthetics.