The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Spring Breakers

Written by Marta Wąsik.

Photo from the article "We’re having so much fun here. This place is special. I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been. I think we found ourselves here. […] It’s way more than just having a good time."

On the phone to her grandmother, Faith (Selena Gomez) muses over her spring break experience, but the lengthy monologue overlays images which often ironically juxtapose the girl’s words. “We saw some beautiful things here,” she says dreamily while the image on screen shows the bikini clad heroines urinating on the side of the road. The dissonance between the words and images is palpable. Of course, she wouldn’t tell grandma: “we got pissed and then we did some drugs.” But the story she tells is not simply a yarn spun for her Nan. As the film continues, Faith delivers variants of the same speech to her friends, to Alien (played by the wonderful James Franco), and to herself. She praises the spiritual dimension of the trip and its transformative power. Faith may be naïve, but she is not disingenuous. She seeks to live the dream, even if living it means conjuring it up with words. Notably, she is not the only character to do so; Alien is an equally keen narrator. Yet, as he intones “spring break forever, bitches” like a mantra, does he refer to the same spring break (and the same bitches) as Gomez’s character does? And what of the more pragmatic, and noticeably more silent, trio: Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine) and Brit (Ashley Benson)? Are they just characters in Faiths and Alien’s dreams? Or do they strive towards living in one of their own?

In this Alternate Take I wish to view Spring Breakers through the prism of dreamers and dreaming. I understand these to refer broadly to the aspirations and desires, illusions and self-deceits which propel the characters. Dreams, nightmares, and good/bad trips have all been used to describe the film, with critics striving to convey the atmosphere of the piece. Harmony Korine’s film certainly feels oneiric: a colour palette combining the energetic harshness of neon with the toned tenderness of pastel, its use of slow motion, the repetition of words and of images and its deployment of foreshadowing and hindsight to blur the lines of cause and effect, each of these contributes to this tone. Valuing immersion over cerebral comprehension, Spring Breakers is to be experienced rather than thought-through. Yet, although this makes for fantastically rich viewing, it causes analysis to be a painfully difficult task. As the director himself remarked, “this movie says a lot and it says nothing. I have nothing to prove and the movie has nothing to prove.” It is a teasing statement, but one that is very true to the spirit of a film in which ambiguities, contradictions and false leads abound. Thus, the critical process which follows is much like a dream interpretation: an attempt to smooth over incoherence, to make (or even to impose) sense on something inherently elusive. What I propose to do in this article is to offer a framework though which questions about the film’s representation of innocence, pleasure, violence and power can be illuminated. I do not claim that this is an exhaustive approach. My wish is not to close but open up the discussion about the ways in which we can try to make sense of Korine’s latest work.

Although many reviews have noted the prominence of the dream motif (narratively as well as visually), most have focused on its ironic dimension. Much has been written about Spring Breakers’ dedication to lampooning the American Dream: the belief in each person’s innate capacity to become who they wish to be though hard work and dedication. We are reminded early on that nothing comes for free. Money is a pragmatic necessity. Notably all of the major narrative turning points relate to lacking means: not being able to afford to go on spring break leads the girls to rob the store; not having enough money to get out of jail leads Alien to bail them out. Yet above all money functions as a symbol: of potency, of power, and of position. Money is not simply to be spent, it is to be thrown around, fondled, smelled and displayed. The relation between material and social transformation is, of course, a well-recognised trope of gangster films, a genre from which Spring Breakers draws quite heavily (if idiosyncratically). Of all the characters it is Alien who is the spokesperson for the “to acquire is to become” philosophy. The more you have, the more you are, and in contemporary consumer society one can never have enough or have it all. Nowhere is this made clearer than in Franco’s improvised “look at all my shit” speech, a scene that draws parallels to the excesses of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) throwing his shirts at a spellbound Daisy (Carey Mulligan) in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013). “This was my dream, I made it come true. This is the fucking American Dream,” Alien says, waving his arms around, describing all of the things he owns:

Look at all my shit. I’ve got shorts, every fucking color. I’ve got designer t-shirts. I’ve got gold bullets for motherfucking vampires. Scarface on repeat. Constant, y’all. Got Escape, Calvin Klein Escape, mix that shit up with Calvin Klein Be. Smell nice, I smell nice. This ain’t a bed, this is a motherfucking art piece. My motherfucking spaceship. USS Enterprise, I go to different planets on this motherfucker. Me and my fucking Frankins’ here we take off! Look at my shit.

If Alien is Spring Breakers’ image of the self-made man then it is not difficult to see why critics would see Korine’s representation of the American Dream as ironic. Franco’s characterization is nothing short of bizarre. With his cornrows, his gold capped teeth and a dollar sign tattooed on his neck (and many more seemingly incoherent designs decorating his chest and arms), he is much closer to Franco’s usual bumbling con-man persona (see this year’s Oz, the Great and Powerful, for instance) than the gangster image he is trying to convey. Yet there is an honesty and tenderness to Franco’s performance which counterbalances the parodic elements of his characterisation. Alien is something of a holy fool: a self professed “gangster with a heart of gold,” he takes real, innocent pleasure from having things. As he shows off his possessions he is like a child in a toy shop, gleeful and overexcited. He is equally pleased by his dark tanning oil as he is by machine guns, but above all he is delighted at being able to show it all off to the girls whom he adores.

If Alien is living the American Dream then that dream is composed of both stuff and stories about stuff. Possessing is only half of the success; the other half is flaunting those possessions. As Alien enumerates all he can think of, Candy and Brit sit on the bed covered with money squealing with glee. Although they are not particularly active or verbal in the scene their presence is key: they are the audience that Alien needs in order to live out his dream. As his monologue comes to a close, he pauses and asks with a hint of uncertainty, “You like my shit?” and then repeats with conviction, “You fucking love it, don’t you.” His treatment of the girls as an audience is similar to the way in which Faith casts her friends in her fantasy of “the time of their lives.” In her monologues she never refers solely to her own experience but speaks for all the girls. During the pool scene, Faith muses on the possibility of endless togetherness: “I wish we’d be able to buy a house here together… We could freeze life… Freeze it and say: this is how it’s gonna be forever.” Even though, from the very start, the girls are shown to be seeking quite different “thrills,” Faith refuses to recognize the very real differences between her friends’ desires. Being the one who stands apart from the group (on account of her innocence she is left out of the robbery), she is the one most insistent on its togetherness. Korine’s use of Faith’s monologues is in line with the film’s wider preoccupation with disjunction. Thus, Faith’s insistence on the homogeneity of the girls’ experience functions in the opposite way, foregrounding the idiosyncrasy of their desires and expectations.

There is no denying that the girls are after radically different pleasures. Although all are shown to enjoy the spring break debauchery, each seeks a different kind of “fun” within that shared framework. The differences between the friends have been described in terms of limits, and their journey to, through, and beyond the spring break as a framework set out to test them. However, Spring Breakers is not simply a story of a group of friends who find out how far they are willing to go; after all, the girls’ “limits” are made clear even before they embark on holiday. It is Candy and Britt who - much to their pleasure - rob a restaurant to acquire the money needed to travel to Florida. Cotty is driving, equally thrilled and terrified by the adventure. Faith, of course, isn’t even aware of the plan (Korine visibly exploits the innocence of Gomez’s persona - the most shocking thing the former Disney star does in the film is to smoke a bong). Yet whereas Faith’s monologues provide sufficient material for understanding her character, and Cotty is not exactly a tough nut to crack (“everything in moderation” could easily be her motto provided that there are levels of temperance in excess), Brit and Candy are the film’s greatest enigma. They are not exactly discontent with their spring break, but there is much more to their desires than meets the eye. From the beginning their hunger for violence (or rather their enjoyment of power than can be achieved through violence) is emphasised. “They are evil. They have demon blood” Faith’s church friends caution. Faith dismisses their warning with characteristic naïveté, saying: “They’re sweet. I’ve known them from kindergarden,” and although I dismissed them on first viewing (concentrating primarily on Faith and Alien) I came to realize that it is their (untold) side of the story that is central to the film’s exploration of violence and gender.

Brit and Candy are similar to the point of being indistinguishable. Both are blond and slim, and always depicted together. At first they appear as the perfect teenage sex-pots. Yet looks can - and in this case do - deceive. This is poignantly illustrated by the scene in which the girls turn the tables on the gangster. During Alien’s American Dream eulogy, the scene enforces generically gendered power relations in which he is the predatory male and the girls are captivated by his power and success. Then suddenly Candy picks up a gun. “Careful, its loaded,” Alien warns, as Brit follows suit. “Sick motherfucker. You think you can just fucking own us,” they say, pointing the weapons at the gangster and revealing an unexpected awareness of the rules of the game. Alien is powerless, and the girls take great pleasure from his predicament. “We don’t need you Alien. What if we just used you to come here. And in five seconds we blow your brains out. And you’re dead, and we have all your stuff.” How are we to read this sudden empowerment of our protagonists? Of course not every display of female violence is a feminist statement. While Spring Breakers passes the Bechdel Test with top marks, “Girls Gone Wild” (a college girl-themed porn site) is one of the most often brought up contexts for the film. As much as it glorifies powerful females, the film does not offer any clear-cut feminist agenda; Brit and Candy may not be ordinary vacant vamps but neither are they any kind of feminist icons. Rather, the film presents them as powerful and powerless in equal measure, at once sexualised and defiant. This ambiguity can be illustrated by Spring Breakers’ most famous scene: the girls’ gun dance to Alien’s piano rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime”, interstingly discussed here. Dressed in skimpy bikini tops, sweatpants with DTF (“Down to Fuck”) imprinted on their bums, and hot pink ski masks with a My Little Pony motif (reminiscent of the signature balaclavas worn by the Russian anti-protest punk group Pussy Riot), their visual characterization is a mix of contradictory signs: sex, innocence, and power. They may be “bad bitches” but at the same time they are also the “good girls” they claim they want to become.

The choice of song is also of crucial significance. Spears’ work has been read as exploring the pains of contemporary celebrity lifestyles, and its deployment by Korine acts as a metaphor for the heroines’ decent into debauchery. The song and the context which it carries begets the question: what will becomes of the girls? These particular girls, but also girls in general who are bombarded by contradictory messages concerning how they should dress, how to behave, and who they should (try to) be. Whereas Faith and Cotty return to their dull lives (meaning school, college parties and church), Brit and Candy leave suspended. Although they do call their parents, making vows to be good girls and promising to return home, there is no way of telling if they are being honest. The film’s finale heightens this sense of ambiguity. As the remaining duo raid Big Arch’s (Gucci Mane) house seeking revenge for Cotty’s wounding, Faith’s voice can be heard on the soundtrack speaking the monologue that opened this piece. As the film draws to a close, punctuating the revenge scene with images from the girls’ trip, Faith begins chanting Alien’s mantra: “Spring Break forever. Spring Break forever, bitches.” It would seem that Brit and Candy are indeed living the dreams of the films principal narrators. They “found themselves here” and seemingly they can go on forever, delaying reality. As we watch them ride off into the unknown, the iconography brings to mind another pair of cinematic heroines: Thelma and Louise. Perhaps this - like the use of “Everytime” - is a way of foreshadowing the impending downfall of our wayward heroines. Yet we realise that unlike Thelma and Louise, Brit and Candy have nothing from which to run, nor do they have anything to pursue; these girls exist purely in the moment. At the end of the film we still don’t really know what it is that they are looking for. Maybe, apart from instant gratification, they simply aren’t really looking for anything.

This Alternate Take was published on August 28, 2013.

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