Spring Breakers Was (Five Years) Ahead of Its Time – Review #30

“After four college girls rob a restaurant to fund their spring break in Florida, they get entangled with a weird dude with his own criminal agenda.”

Comedies, Dark Comedies

Umm…

Look, I get it. Some films are difficult to describe – let alone with just 26 words. And we all know that accurate synopses are not Netflix’s highest priority… but this one is pretty bad. Both because it misleadingly connects two entirely unrelated events in the movie, and because it seems to have been written by someone who thinks that flippancy is inherently clever.

It’s not.

“comedies, dark comedies”

Maybe whomever it was who wrote that description just deeply, deeply misunderstood what they had seen.

In this hypothetical Netflix synopsizer’s defense, it’s not hard to misunderstand Spring Breakers, a movie that follows four young women who spend more time in bikinis than not. A movie that opens with topless men and women living their best lives on a spring break beach, as Skrillex’s Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites wub wubs over it all.

A power fantasy where guns never run out of bullets.

A few months ago, I showed Spring Breakers to my currently-in-college sister, and she really fixated on that last bit in the same way that the film is fixated on guns in general.

There are a lot of guns, real and fake, in Spring Breakers. At first, they’re impressions of suicidal imagery. The girls are locked into their boring college lives; they point finger guns at their heads and pull imaginary triggers. Brit drinks from the barrel of a loaded squirt gun.

Scenes transition with the sounds of guns cocking. They echo across the soundscape. Even when you don’t see them, you feel them. And then all of a sudden, they’re everywhere. And they are everything.

Spring Breakers understands the truly fetishistic relationship that America has with guns – the way that their killing power has been sexualized by our culture. And the camera loves the guns just as much as it loves the girls holding them. What starts off feeling like a lost Girls Gone Wild tape ends up a fever dream symphony of sex and violence just daring you, the viewer, to get swept up.

But the actual construction of the film makes it very difficult to do that. I haven’t seen many genuinely good films that were more clearly formed in the edit than Spring Breakers. Of course, every film is made three times: on the page, on set, in the edit, but a movie like this can only exist with hindsight. No one, not even Harmony Korine, could have known what Spring Breakers would become.

And I’m not just saying that in some pathetic attempt to sound insightful; I know it for an actual fact, because I read the script. You can too; A24’s original link is gone but I’ll point you in the proper direction down below. I highly recommend it if you have seen the film, because it really does show just how much can change. The imagery, by and large, is intact – I would call Korine’s descriptions “grotesquely evocative” – but the context is oh so different.

Scenes are in different order, or even on top of each other. There are flashes forward and backward. Dialogue is repeated, but with different inflections – pulled, I assume, from multiple takes given different direction. These are not in the script; indeed, most of the dialogue in the film appears to have been improvised, because there’s a whole lot less on the page and the stuff that is there feels a lot less… human? I dunno, it’s pretty awkward. It’s good they were allowed to riff.

But that doesn’t really come across. Those strange edits sometimes feel almost arbitrary in the moment, but taken collectively they are so goshdarn impactful, because they serve the broader purpose that makes Spring Breakers so unforgettable: It is telling you a lie while showing you the truth.

This is not unique to Spring Breakers, but Spring Breakers does it uniquely well. It’s worth noting that there was a metatextual aspect to Spring Breakers at the time of its release that is lost now. Back then, putting Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, and Vanessa Hudgens in roles like this was scandalous. To some, it might have felt like they were overcompensating for kid-friendly images by taking part in this very-not-kid-friendly film. Indeed, them and Rachel Korine, wife of the writer/director

– which, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge is so freaking strange –

were co-nominated for the Alliance of Women Film Journalist’s “Actress Most in Need of a New Agent” award that year, though they ultimately lost to Cameron Diaz for The Counselor.

Time has now passed, and images have changed. It’s not so strange that these actors would play these roles. Let’s be honest: they’re flawless casting choices. Every one of the four characters is perfectly realized, with Vanessa Hudgens as Candy I think being the particular standout.

Spring Breakers takes these four attractive young women, puts them in bikinis, and then lets them loose into debauchery. It is objectifying them in the context of their own story. And if you turned the sound off, you might think that was all it was doing.

But then you listen to Gomez’s Faith calling her grandmother and talking about how beautiful the thing you’re seeing is, how she wishes they could go together – what a wonderful time. In the script, there’s a knowing smile but it is played perfectly straight onscreen, and it’s far more effective for that change. Because it’s Faith’s own conviction in the magic of the Florida beaches that shows how horrific everything is. The sound both adds the necessary drama to make the scene function and makes clear that the celebratory imagery itself is not so celebratory at all. It’s gross, and it knows it. All that ogling the camera is doing starts to feel more like an attack on the audience, again, a dare to get caught up in everything before it all comes crashing down.

The spell begins to break even before the introduction of James Franco’s Alien, a genuinely terrible rapper whose actual business is drugs and murder. He bails the girls out from prison after they’re arrested alongside two of his own posse at a particularly crazy Spring Break party, which had nothing to do with a chicken shop robbery, and he just wants them to be with him. They’re attractive and in need; he wants to be their knight in shining armor. And in return, they get Spring Break… Forever. But the reality of that is terrifying and dangerous.

One gets scared. Another gets hurt; they go back to their old lives, despite Alien’s protests. The remaining girls hug them goodbye, and then they board a bus and and watch the world go by from what I can only assume is I-95.

In the end, there are only the true believers, and they herald in a new kind of truth. A “Future is Female” kind of truth, as Brit and Candy show the world that nothing will stop them from living in Spring Break Forever. The film becomes their dream, as they ascend to power using the tools at their disposal, both natural and man-made. And it’s glorious. Which is why I think Spring Breakers’ biggest problem was its release date. Had this film come out in, say, 2017 instead of 2013, I think the conversation around it would have been very, very different. And much more interesting.

Because Spring Breakers feels like a movie of the current age, one that feeds into the chaotic and angry world that we are living in now – one that points a literal gun at the male gaze while still fully embracing it. It’s a big, beautiful mess of a film that demands and rewards repeat viewings.

And I love it. I love it so much.

9.5 out of 10.

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