Whether you love him or hate him, Harmony Korine does seem to be having too much fun exploiting kids and perhaps too much fun wearing the characterization of an “enfant terribe.” His latest film, “Spring Breakers,” is generational portrait of youthful depravity, but Mr. Korine, at 39, need not pretend that his version is a sketch in the extreme of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ rock, because by popular standards it’s quite light.
“Spring Breakers,” directed by Korine and starring James Franco, Selena Gomez, and Ashley Benson, takes you on a journey through the dangerous drug and gun smuggling world of present day Florida. This mainstream provocative feature film premieres at the Venice Film festival on Wednesday and highlights four bikini-clad partygoers on an alcohol and drug-fuelled orgy of beach parties and mischief.
The movie follows the ladies descent from Florida spring-break debauchery to the even more unstable lows of thug life, which may be a shock to the system for fans of teen queen Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, but remains pretty toothless thrill, nothing too disturbing. Older more traditional practitioners might find it uncomfortable or embarrassing, though the youthful target audience may seek it out on newer media. Gomez has expressed some recent feelings that implied she might be uncomfortable with the film as some critics have characterized it as a portrait of youthful depravity.
The camera zooms in on scantily clad teenagers gyrating to the music, local drug dealers snort cocaine from writhing, topless girls and mobsters cruise the streets of Florida in Lamborghinis in a hedonistic portrait of the “American Dream”.
Gomez plays Faith, the least wild of a group of four young college students on their mid-term “spring break”, and the actress admitted that some fans would find the movie shocking.
“Obviously I know that coming from Disney Channel gives you kind of a brand in a way,” the 20-year-old told reporters in Venice after the movie was screened to the press.
“People do put a label on you. I know that I have younger fans, and this is an opportunity for myself to kind of grow. It is a little shocking, I think, for the younger audiences … but I think it was right for me.
“I did things I didn’t even know I could do on the movie and I do think it was because I trusted Harmony.”
Gomez, who rose to fame as a teenager on Disney show “Wizards of Waverly Place” and enjoyed success as a pop singer, added that she turned down the opportunity to play one of the more racy characters.
“I just didn’t think I was ready for it, and I do think that Faith is right for me at this time in my career and in my life. Of course eventually I’m going to kind of work my way up to that I think,” she added.
Reaction to the movie in Venice has been mixed.
Korine is described as an “enfant terrible” of American film making who is best known for writing controversial sex movie “Kids” and directing the experimental “Julien Donkey-Boy”.
Some critics found Spring Breakers implausible and pretentious, while others described it as “wild” and “compelling” and a breath of fresh air at a film festival dominated by more serious, somber cinema.
Robbie Collin of the Daily Telegraph argued that Korine did not go far enough.
If the film is a sellout, however, it’s a calculatedly ironic one. From its dayglo opening montage depicting the sights and sounds of a typical spring break — a relatively modern rite of passage that finds college students congregating in coastal towns for reckless drinking and indiscriminate sex — Korine is plainly aping the aesthetic of such vapid MTV exploitation shows as “Jersey Shore.” Less clear is whether he’s effectively satirizing them or merely complicit in the glossy meretriciousness of the culture they represent.
It’s a line this frequently amusing film never negotiates with complete success, though Korine might believe this ambiguity is itself indicative of the generation under scrutiny. Just about every charge of social negligence leveled at “Spring Breakers” can be countered with an arch claim of intent, which makes it at once playful and wearying; enjoyment is contingent on how little you’re willing to fight it. Indeed, there’s plenty to enjoy once the white flag has been raised, from the glistening neon polish of Benoit Debie’s ace lensing to James Franco’s latest role, this time as a gold-toothed, bird-brained white gangsta who has modeled his entire image on Lil’ Wayne.
Franco dominates the proceedings after entering them about a half-hour in, not least because the four putative heroines remain blurred at the edges throughout.
Raven-haired Gomez is afforded the most distinct perspective (and coiffure) as the none-too-subtly named Faith, a churchgoing good girl who likes to let her hair down at spring break with her three interchangeably fair-headed friends Candy (Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife).
None of them has enough cash for the trip to the Sunshine State, prompting Candy, Brit and Cotty to stage an armed robbery at a Chicken Shack, that’s a restaurant for those of you that don’t know the vernacular. The event fixes the girls’ moral dynamic and sets the tone for what’s to come. Once in Florida, the quartet’s shenanigans land them in prison for drug abuse. James Franco, who spots them in court wearing only bikinis and decides to take them under his wing.
Repelled by Alien’s sleazy criminality, Faith jumps aboard the next bus home. The other three girls, in the film’s increasingly dreamy logic, are somehow turned on by his “BALLR” license plate and bewildering collection of firearms, and duly join his posse. This alliance may afford the film’s most delicious scene, in which Alien and the gun-toting trio gather for a piano-led singalong to mawkish Spears ballad “Everytime,” but it’s a disappointingly patriarchal turn of events for a film that initially promises a reckless girl-power spree along the lines of “Set It Off” or, more extremely, “Baise-moi.”
This is one of several areas in which “Breakers,” the most eccentric stretches of which recall the recent lo-fi work of Zach Clark (“Vacation!”), could have been more bravely subversive than it is. Though the film is heavy on breasts and bullets, its violence and sexual content are unlikely to threaten R-rated boundaries, while an early girl-on-girl kiss is tamer than any sung about by Katy Perry. Casting the wholesome Gomez as Faith, with tabloid-sullied “High School Musical” alum Hudgens as the more rebellious Candy, is a reasonably clever wink, though the stunt hasn’t much of a shelf life, and both actresses deserve more to play with.
the sex or violence is depressingly tame, too: a swimming pool ménage-a-trois between Hudgens, Benson and Franco even verges on the snuggly.
Korine’s wicked sense of humour is in evidence both in motifs borrowed from earlier films (masks, nonsense songs, clowning) and some sensational new tricks: a Russ Meyer-inflected heist montage backed by an obscure Britney Spears album track is a scream, and the cuts between almost every scene are underscored with the deafening snap of an automatic weapon being cocked.
Moments like this make Spring Breakers worth watching, but while the film is a success on its own art house exploitation terms, it can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity. The freakin’ American dream is an awful lot harder, sleazier and stranger than this.
Franco has carefully cultivate his craft and that’s something we can admit to. As the movie winds down Alien sits at his grand piano and plays Britney Spears, “Everytime” as the girls cavort in pink ski masks, Spring Breakers nearly achieves the sense of delirium it wants to instill in its complicit audience.