Beyond its Candy-Coated Outer Shell, “Spring Breakers” Critiques a Nasty Culture

spring breakers poster

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.

by Monica Castillo
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Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic. You can usually find her on Twitter talking about the movie she just watched at @mcastimovies.

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

I really liked your write-up.

I really liked your write-up. A lot of reviews for Spring Breakers seem to immediately be pointing at it being all style and no substance. While yes it does look that way, it uses that visage to allow some very hyper-sexual and hyper-violent scenes take place, scenes which we accept because they are in the movie.

(Spoilers) At first I did find the ending problematic with the girls killing off an entire house full of black men, but I think at that point the movie leads us to root for these girls. But they have done something that we know they can get away with. They even call their moms and say "we're heading back to school now, we'll be good now" and they're given a chance to explore this world, but without the negative consequences. I think this foray into gangster culture says a lot about non-colored peoples obsessions with gangster/black culture. For instance, Alien acts like he is assimilated with this crowd, but he stands out as a complete poser, hence the name Alien.

There's a lot to unpack in the movie. It isn't without its flaws but its definitely a lot more interesting than some people reduce it to. I can't even begin to explain the Spring Break scenes. Someone explained it really eloquently someplace else - its like eating too much candy, you think you want that much candy, but once you've hit that point of too much, you feel repelled by the thought of it.

Solid review

I have to be honest. Since the moment this film was announced I've been metaphorically (and literally) rolling my eyes at the concept; how could I not when you consider the mainstream culture of Hollywood and it's depictions of women and this kind of partying (Project X). Ultimately I'll reserve my finally opinion for when I finally get around to watching it, but it's good to identify the filmmakers (and actors, because their performances help sell the message) in Hollywood still trying to use the medium to get people to critically think about certain aspects of their culture.

Having said all that I still think there's no hope for Pain & Gain...

Saw it tonight

I just saw this movie tonight and really liked it. There are a lot of themes that are certainly arguably problematic (race/sexuality). The way these issues were depicted did not come across as one-sided to me at all. It was a fairly obvious satire of the hedonism of spring break rituals. The problematic racial themes seemed to me to be a commentary on white privilege rather than an indulgence in it. Still, this film left me on the fence about whether it really succeeded in subverting those problems. For some people I'm sure that ambiguity would be enough to dismiss the subversive elements altogether. Ultimately I really enjoyed this movie as a critique of T&A culture and privileged white youth.

i'm shocked by how many

i'm shocked by how many people really liked this movie. i actually have no problem with the content, it is just mad boring. every shot is too long, none of the people in it are characters, the loopy dialogue lines, too low in the soundtrack mix. it's like watching a highschool jazz band warm up and never seeing the performance. a 90 minute preview for a real movie that doesn't exist.

i don't know that makes me so angry. probably cause it coulda been a funny or interesting movie.

I liked your write-up on this

I liked your write-up on this except for a couple of things:

Firstly, Faith becomes uncomfortable in the gambling hall because she's being aggressively hit on and touched in a way she does not want to be touched. The men in this scene (vs the party scene) are aggressive, gang-affiliated, and most likely have guns on them and are being very sexually aggressive towards her. This has happened to me before, and yes, it was around mostly black men, and it made me very uncomfortable, does that make me racist? I would also like to argue that for her, it was the last straw: getting arrested, thrown in jail, and being bailed out by a complete stranger who is creepy as all hell, and having your friends go along with it. Oh, and having HIM being aggressive towards her as well.

And: You say that the two girls at the end get away with murder in large part because they're "cute and white." The ending of the movie is ambiguous. We don't know that they got away with it, we only see them driving away, and there was also no way to trace the murders back to them, remember the ski masks? No one could identify them even if they reported it. Oh, and the fact that the shootings happened at the house of a drug dealer, so no one who survived the shootings would have dared called the cops because it would have implicated them. The only thing that they would have been able to say is that two women in bikinis and ski masks did it. Alien was dead.

Why do Bitch writers try to make everything about race when it's clearly not?

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