This will make you feel old: it has been 18 years since Harmony Korine wrote “Kids” at the age of 21, with the Larry Clark directed film proving to be something of a firecracker in the midst of mid-90s indie cinema, by turns controversial, seedy, and honest. Korine made his own directorial debut with 1998’s “Gummo,” and over the last 15 or so years has made films that (with the possible exception of “Mister Lonely”), push aesthetic & critical boundaries further and further, culminating in 2009’s “Trash Humpers,” a film shot on a VHS camcorder, featuring a cast in old-people masks generally trying to provoke the audience into walking out. So where could he possibly go from there?
By making “Spring Breakers,” a curiously mainstream (at least by Korine’s standards) crime/exploitation picture — that could be described as “Drive” by way of Russ Meyer, Terry Richardson and “Point Blank” — featuring a bevy of teen starlets best known for wholesome work on the Disney Channel, and a performance from restless A-lister James Franco that might just be one of the actor’s best to date.
The plot is fairly simple, all told. Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are four lifelong friends at the same college campus. Lone brunette Faith is more straight-laced, and nominally Christian, while the others have more fearsome, hard-partying reputations.
They’re planning on heading to Florida for Spring Break, but are short on cash, and so to raise the additional funds, Candy, Brit and Cotty knock over a fast-food restaurant. The job goes off without a hitch, and they’re soon down south partying with the other boys and girls gone wild. The dream looks to be over, however, when they’re picked up on drugs charges by the cops.
But fortunately, they’ve come to the attention of local gangster/would-be-rapper Alien (Franco), who pays off their fines, and takes them under his wing, falling for Brit and Candy in the process. But when he comes into conflict with another dealer, his former best friend Archie (rapper Gucci Mane), which of the girls will stick out spring break by his side, and which will head back to college – or worse?
It’s clear from the off that this is going to be something very different for Korine, with a slow-motion opening sequence of topless co-eds drinking beer bongs on the beach that could be lifted straight from a “Girls Gone Wild” tape or a sleazy music video, albeit one with high production values.
The director’s working with a whole new style here, and thanks to DoP Benoit Debie, the film looks legitimately fantastic – a colourful, neon-lit nighttime aesthetic highly reminiscent of this summer’s other Florida-set picture, “Magic Mike” (the two will make a hell of a double bill one day). There's also some dazzling camerawork, including a genuinely awe-inspiring crane shot of a pool party with what looks like thousands of extras, and a brilliantly choreographed tracking shot of the robbery seen through the window of the getaway car.
It’s also different because, if it’s art, and it probably is, it’s firmly a piece of pop art. The soundtrack (when not driven by the score from Cliff Martinez and Skillrex) is for the most part up-to-the-minute hi-NRG teen pop and hip-hop, with Nicki Minaj, Ellie Goulding, The Weeknd, and Waka Flocka Flame all making appearances, along with a robbery montage scored, brilliantly, to Britney Spears.
The colors, the thin character development, the movie references (Alien has “Scarface” playing permanently on repeat), all add up to the cinematic equivalent of something by Jeff Koons – glossy, bright and ultimately disposable. Korine nudges towards saying things about the American dream, materialism, and the need to escape as you break out into your his teens, but never really lets anything of substance emerge. He’s much happier, in this case, making an immaculately stylish exploitation picture. Those looking for something as genuinely shocking as his other work should go elsewhere – there are moments that’ll grab TMZ headlines (coke, some nudity mostly from Mrs. Korine, a “Wild Things” style swimming pool threesome), but nothing truly dangerous.
Which isn’t to say that it’s uninteresting, cinematically speaking. The mood (again, as with “Magic Mike”) is curiously downbeat and sad for much of the film – even as the girls have the best time of their lives, they know it’s coming to an end. Even as they enter a life of crime, they know it can only end badly. And the phenomenal editing by Douglas Crise (a former assistant editor for Sodebergh, who also cut “Babel” and “Arbitrage,” among others) really pushes that to the forefront, rarely letting the viewer settle in to a "present," constantly hopping around in time, and even repeating fragments and shots.
It’s probably the single aspect that’ll stop the film from becoming a crossover hit, although you never know. Certainly the star appeal of the young cast should be potent, and they actually acquit themselves as well as they could with such thin characters, with the exception of Rachel Korine, who never feels comfortable on screen. Gomez has the best-defined role, but probably the least screen time, while Hudgens and Benson are charismatic, but essentially joined at the hip in the film.
But really, it’s Franco’s film. He doesn’t appear in any substance until nearly halfway through, but his Florida Fagin is enormously entertaining. Buried under corn-rows and metal teeth, Franco plays Alien like Matthew McConaughey doing an impression of Lil ‘Jon (it’ll make sense when you see us, trust us…), a curiously charming and childlike gangster. We’ve grown increasingly tired of Franco’s self-regarding art projects of late, but this served as a much-needed reminder of how much fun he can be on screen.
We mentioned “Drive” earlier, and in many ways this feels like the 2012 equivalent of last year’s crime cult picture (though certainly not as good), and not just because of the neon-lit cityscapes and Cliff Martinez score – it’s ultimately a fairly thin, pulpy crime tale, given more substance than it should have on paper thanks to some excellent filmmaking. It’s unlikely to make Korine’s hardcore fans happy (it almost feels like a statement from the director, for better or worse, that he’s ready to stop dicking around and make "proper" films), but midnight movie programmers of the future will undoubtedly give it a long life years after it’s gone from first-run theaters. [B]