I had this awkward moment at the Paramount Theatre in Austin after the frenzied SXSW premiere of Harmony Korine’s much-hyped Spring Breakers. I liked the film; I was beaming when washing my hands in the ladies room.
“Urgh, that was such an AWFUL movie,” some girl in an expensive dress and platinum badge said behind me.
“It was so gross,” her equally disgusted friend added. I wiped the smile off my face and quickly sidled out.
I know where they’re coming from. The film’s infamous spring breakers are a group of four college girls searching for fun in the Florida sun. Visually, it’s a film nerd’s paradise: creative, innovative, captivating, full of symbolism, and so saturated with neon, half the movie looks as if it took place in a basement club. The performances were astonishingly good for what otherwise could have been “Beach Blanket Bingo” gone wild and it’s packed with meme-ready catchphrases. As for my own amusement, the film is set near my hometown, which added a little personal pride and irony—I’m usually the one calling the cops on the spring breakers back home.
On the flip side, it’s amoral, violent, sexually explicit, and certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Spring Breakers revels in the exploitive and abusive culture that encourages bros to mew dirty cat calls and applaud when chicks strip. The first ten minutes of credits is just that: topless keg stands, close-up shots of bouncing boobs in slow motion, and plenty of wasteful pouring of booze onto the beaches of St. Petersburg, Florida (which for the record, does not have a public nude beach). It’s the kind of movie where characters commit murder in bikinis.
But even after setting the explicit stage, the movie was rife with shocking, problematic moments revolving around sexual assault and race. The girls start their spring break by robbing a diner, and in a flashback retelling, the two robbers of the group seem proud of the fact that they robbed a black patron. After the group is bailed out of jail by James Franco’s character, Alien, the four are brought to gambling house filled by mostly black extras. Here, Selena Gomez’ character, Faith, becomes aware that the girls are in over their heads and decides to leave the group. Is she scared that she’s no longer surrounded by the mostly white college dudes from before? The group of girls are made to look white, with three of the four sporting dyed blond hair. There’s another potentially triggering moment where a woman is surrounded by young jocks who drunkenly dare each other to have sex with her. There’s also a scene in which one of the girls humiliates the egotistical Alien, putting a gun to his head and making him submit to her. She tells him to suck the gun, which he does so enthusiastically. Like much of the film, the scene is hypersexualized, hyperviolent, and hyperconfusing.
When I asked director Harmony Korine about the various unpleasantries Spring Breakers after the screening, he stood his artistic ground that he wants audiences to decide what it means for themselves. It’s a creative route also taken by Terrance Malick, Shane Carruth, David Lynch, and Korine himself, of course, in his controversial film Kids, about reckless New York teens.
While Spring Breakers is superficially amoral, Korine makes sure we know that spring break does not in fact last forever. It’s a part of the disposable culture that values then destroys its pop stars and its child stars (like Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez). Remember those catchphrases I mentioned before? A critic noted that memes are a commentary on our current culture: repetitive, glamorized, fetishized, overused, and then forgotten. In this culture, spring break is a proper rite of passage in the college experience.
Then there’s the racial criticism: These girls are able to get away with murder, in a large part because they’re cute and white. Now that’s “so gross.”
Don’t let the sandy beaches and brightly colored bikini suits fool you, Korine’s not in the business of sloppy moviemaking. Behind the film’s vacuous candy-colored outer shell are ambiguous and morally challenging concepts.