A number of people walked out of my Spring Breakers screening, apparently. Bags and coats in hand signified they weren’t coming back. ‘Apparently’ is the term I use because a friend had to inform me of their departure, even as they crossed my line of vision. I didn’t notice; I was too engrossed in the picture.
The deserters – not exclusive to just my screening – tenuously resemble the character and constitution of Faith, one of four bikini-clad, gun-toting college girls populating posters everywhere for Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. The friends’ wild journey into the heart of darkness known as Spring Break takes an unexpectedly bizarre descent into absurdity halfway through the film, engendering individual responses from each girl that determines their respective endpoints.
Selena Gomez’ Faith begins the film as a consummate good girl, innocent yet impressionable, a bible-brandisher wishing to break from life’s monotony and seek transcendence in an exotic environment. Faith isn’t fully in sync with her three friends – portrayed by former Disney face Vanessa Hudgens, Pretty Little Liar star Ashley Benson and Korine’s wife Rachel – distinguished by way of her abstinence from guns, drugs and sex.
She is the film’s moral centre, and once the girls separate from their swamp of college peers and become embroiled in a gang war waged between Gucci Mane’s Big Arch and James Franco’s Riff Raff-riffing Alien, Faith realises the extent to which her own mastery has been relinquished from her once self-perpetuating fantasy. As Faith returns home, she presses her hand against the coach window and stares dejectedly at the beach outside, separated by a pane of glass – or a screen, if you will.
And so the moral objectors and juvenile viewers alike stage their individual protests at Spring Breaker’s full-fledged indulgence, drawing away from a window over which they have no mastery. This can be credited to the film’s oneiric presentation: a stream of consciousness that rewinds and fast forwards, forgoing linear progression in favour of repetition, of words and images and feeling. This latter sensation is the firefly that evades capture; these girls diligently quest to attain a spiritual transcendence through the repetitive frisson of Spring Break.
The onslaught of interrelated, debauched snapshots subsides into something resembling linear plot progression upon the arrival of gangster Alien. Instead of casually surfing from one cocaine-fuelled orgy to another, the girls are suddenly propelled into a conflict with substantive backstory, faced with a trajectory and transitory purpose. The holiday has become more than a sequence of nihilistic, masturbatory episodes. The instant gratification and transcendental promise of the film’s first half is now threatened by the build to war between two rival factions. Faith is the moralistic one, but her character is symptomatic of a characteristic 21st century teenager, searching for the next source of abstracted frisson to satiate her wavering attention. Alien’s world does not exist to placate her desires.
This is not to suggest that Korine is moralising, reductively wagging his fingers at the culture or conversely giving it his full endorsement. Nor can he be accused of demeaning women. Benson and Hudgens find self-actualisation within their adventure, taking control of the narrative and assuming dominance over Alien. In one scene, they assault him with weapons, forcing him to fellate the end of their pistols. And in the lead up to their attack on Arch’s compound, they taunt Alien with accusations of ‘being a pussy’.
Rather than pass judgement, Korine fully indulges in the subjective experience of these young people and their search for a perverse enlightenment. His is a headfirst leap into the sea of a seductive fantasy, swept along in neon, ‘Skittle’ sparks of colour and reels of illogic enjoyment that play on a loop, existing in the dream world of ‘forever’. If it didn’t contain half of its provocative imagery, Spring Breakers would have perhaps been greeted with less knee-jerk responses from oversensitive critical circles. But then, it wouldn’t be the same film at all. Korine has not just painted an impressionistic tableau of youthful desire and discontent; he’s given us one of the best deconstructions of fantasy since David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.