Spring Breakers review

Paul Bradshaw
Spring Breakers... Gomez, Benson, Korine and Hudgens (Credit: Annapurna Pictures)
Spring Breakers... Gomez, Benson, Korine and Hudgens (Credit: Annapurna Pictures)

‘Spring Breakers’ isn’t what it looks like… Or maybe it is. With an advertising campaign consisting entirely of its four starlets pouting in fluorescent bikinis, the film’s producers are obviously hoping to lure in a young crowd expecting dub-step, binge-drinking and topless girls dancing in slow-motion. Although they’ll get all of that (and plenty of it), audiences after a dumb teen flick will find themselves the target of an undercover art house film taking smug sideswipes at the same culture that let it slip into the multiplexes.

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Spring Break, for those who don’t know, is an annual ritual in America that sees thousands of college kids flocking to the beach for a few weeks of debauchery. Leaving their gloomy lives behind them, Candy, Faith, Cotty and Brit head to Florida to get the party started. Faith (Selena Gomez) is the quiet, religious one, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) is the dumb, excitable one… and so are the other two (Rachel Korine and Ashley Bensen). Trouble starts early when they decide to fund their trip by robbing a chicken shop with a water pistol – devolving by the end of their holiday into an all-girl hit squad for a local drug dealer (James Franco).

It might be a contrived rite-of-passage, but anyone who grew up with Gomez and Hudgens on the Disney Channel will be surprised to see them smoking a bong, urinating in the street and writhing around naked, but directed by experimental shock-jock filmmaker Harmony Korine, it could have been a lot worse. Notorious for his controversial art-house movies, Korine (who once made a film about a man pimping out his down-syndrome sister, and another that featured nothing but a circle of kids vomiting on a bible) delivers a surprisingly tame portrait of America’s lost generation.

Tabloid headlines and misleading posters aside, ‘Spring Breakers’ is bravura filmmaking. Confident and sharp-edged without compromising its lo-fi credentials, Korine directs with shades of John Cassavetes and Terrence Malick. A heady mix of handheld documentary, shotgun cuts and whispered, repeated voice-overs, it’s a long way from the throwaway summer movie it looks like it’s going to be. One memorable scene even takes an ironic jab at teen-queen Britney Spears, using her song ‘Everytime’ to soundtrack a montage of slow-motion ultra-violence that’s as beautiful as it is absurd.

The problem comes when the film runs out of steam, throwing in a daft crime story to keep the momentum going. With Franco’s gangsta being a clumsy metaphor for a broken American dream, Korine lets youth culture off the hook by taking things too far. At his most savage when he’s casting a disgusted eye over his young subjects (making one naked beach party look like something from a Breughel painting), Korine sends one Disney princess home and lets the others fall into a cliché-ridden subplot about gang warfare.

The social, moral and cultural decrepitude of modern America has been in need of a film like this for a long time – it’s just a shame that Korine pulls his punches before the blood, booze and vomit really starts running.