Can I Get an Amen…Or At Least a Gun and a Wad of Cash?

Spring Breakers isn’t necessarily the year’s first must-see film, but it might be one of the first “you really might want to see it” films. But be warned, writer/director Harmony Korine‘s tale of spring-break gone terribly wrong is full of potentially offensive images and dialogue. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s certainly a unique viewing experience that has stuck with me in ways that few other recent viewing experiences have.

Spring Breakers is an over-the-top cautionary tale (of sorts) about four college-age girls, Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine), who are bored to tears and looking for a little spring break excitement. The problem? They don’t have enough money. Three of them (guess which one didn’t tag along) rob a restaurant with a water gun and a sledge hammer, grab Faith, and hop a bus to St. Petersburg, Florida. There they engage in hedonistic activities with their peers, hooking up, smoking a lot of weed, doing coke, and binge drinking all the while bouncing to hip-hop music and destroying motel rooms. Police raid one of the parties, and the girls are taken to jail. Just when it seems that all hope is lost, in walks an opportunistic, shady drug/gun dealer and aspiring rapper, Alien (James Franc0 in corn rows and tats), to bail them out. He sees potential partners in crime. Faith doesn’t have a good feeling about this and makes the tough decision to go back home. After an incidence of gang violence, Cotty also flees, leaving Candy and Brit to follow in Alien’s footsteps. I’ll leave it here to avoid spoilers because there’s so much to talk about without giving anything away.

Bored little jailbirds.
Bored little jailbirds.

The best place to start might be with an analysis of the film itself…that is its aesthetics. The film is cut up like so many lines of cocaine, and gun shots ring out at almost every transition. The colors are an endless rainbow of hot pinks, blues, greens, oranges, and yellows, all the highlighter colors in which spring breakers and backpackers bedeck themselves. There is extensive nudity, of the upper-half female variety. As such, the film might be seen as sexist…there are certainly numerous scenes of women put (putting themselves) in compromising, demeaning positions. There’s also a complicating element of female empowerment in the last third of the film. How successfully the film navigates these two positions will most likely depend on the mindset of individual viewers.

Spring Breakers might also be a commentary on race, if it’s actually trying to do or say anything. But race, here, is a troubling component. In the world of Spring Breakers, you could be forgiven for thinking that all African American men are threatening, hovering, drug-using, hard-drinking sexual predators because, well, in the film that’s all we get. You might also think that this describes all men, period. Faith flees the party scene when it gets too dangerous, which might also be a way of saying too black. On the other hand, you have characters like Candy, Brit, and Cotty who embrace their new, more exciting environment with gusto.

A side note on the partying scenes: I’ve never partaken in similar spring break trips so I don’t know how exaggerated they are, but it’s hard to see how anyone with both hemispheres of their brain fully functioning would find this appealing. As Manohla Dargis put it in her review for The New York Times: “For those who don’t belong to their tribe (never wanted to, never did), they may be exotic, worrisome, frightening or representatives of the decline of the West in hot-pink bikinis.” There’s a sense, however, that Korine is not simply reveling in this type of behavior but returning to it over and over again in attempt to show how empty or ugly it really is…or can be.

Despite the tsunamis of Natty Lite, bags of weed, and mounds of cocaine, there is a spiritual heart to Spring Breakers that cannot be ignored or dismissed. The four girls long for something different, more fulfilling, and it is this longing that might, to some ministers and theologians, be evidence of a religious/spiritual impulse at work. All of us have known this longing at some point in our life and have no doubt responded to it in both healthy and unhealthy ways. These four college friends complain about seeing and doing the same things over and over. They get to their “paradise” destination and instantly fall in love with the place (“It’s soooooo beautiful”) and the people (“Everyone is so nice”). The problem is that when they finally go (get) away, the girls end up doing the same things they did back home (binge drinking and drug using). Same shit, different scene. For them, it’s momentarily fulfilling, but they all soon realize that it can take them in directions they never thought they’d go (at least for Faith and Cotty).

We've all suspected at some point that James Franco is from another planet. Here, his character Alien actually boasts that he is.
We’ve all suspected at some point that James Franco is from another planet. Here, his character Alien actually boasts that he is.

Faith is the most compelling character, for me at least. When we first meet her, she is participating, although without much enthusiasm, in a college Bible study group. I couldn’t tell if the Bible study leader was a minister or a rep for TapouTMy friend Ernest (@ernestmyers) pointed out that he’s actually a former wrestler turned minister, Jeff Jarrett. Most people will inevitably roll their eyes at the minister’s enthusiasm and lingo (he repeatedly asks for an “Amen!”). Faith, like her non-church-going counterparts, is also longing for something different. At its best, the Christian faith can speak to and provide avenues for fulfillment and countercultural living. Unfortunately, the example of religion that we have here is so shallow that Faith is unprepared to speak critically to the destructive behavior spinning out of control around her. We might point to her faith-based background as the impetus that fuels her departure, but she clearly leaves more out of a sense of fear than moral uprightness. There’s also a danger to the youth minister’s “preaching” when he uncritically references a verse from 1 Corinthians (10:13, I think: But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it”) that, as we see later in the film, could be interpreted in some really problematic ways.

And then there’s James Franco, who gives one of his strongest performances as Alien. The appeal of Franco’s performance is not in his big talking, fast acting, gangster posturing but in the subtle glimmers of realization that he might just be, like the girls he befriends, out of his element. He parades around in his bedroom in zubaz pajama bottoms telling Brit and Candy to “Look at all my shit! Look at all my shit!” He’s displaying all his t-shirts, shorts, caps, machine guns, and stacks of cash with gleeful abandon. There’s a moment in this scene in which Candy and Brit could, and for a moment do, turn the tables on him. Alien doesn’t recognize this for what it is, a lesson in vulnerability, but just views it as one more reason to fall further in “love” with his new running mates. Like the girls he has “rescued,” Alien is also on a misguided path that finds meaning and fulfillment in materialism and wealth.

I’m still thinking about and wrestling with much of Spring Breakers. I’m aware that there’s much to it that I just won’t get. There might be many viewers who dismiss or ignore the film altogether, and for those religiously-inclined viewers that do, they’ll also be missing out on what is essentially a fantastical, but altogether not unrealistic, echo of religious/spiritual longing from a younger generation.

Spring Breakers (94 mins.) is rated R for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout and is currently in theaters.