There seems little doubt that the controversy and media scrutiny that preceded the arrival of Spring Breakers in cinemas has had a significant impact on the subsequent box office of the film in Australia, if not other territories as well. I mean, all this talk about so-called “Disney starlets” raunching it up for Harmony Korine – the writer of Kids and writer/director of the equally polarising Gummo – grabbed headlines in movie magazines and more mainstream media in equal measure. It is hard to imagine a Korine film securing anything more than a very limited release without the presence of the aforementioned teen pin-ups – namely Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Selena Gomez.
Of course, anybody who goes in thinking that these girls are really likely to risk their squeaky clean images will be greatly disappointed. For all the buzz around the so-called ‘risk’ these girls were taking in Spring Breakers, this film is far from the salacious sex-romp that it would like you to think it is. Yes, the girls are clad in bikinis and little else for almost the entire duration of the film, but it is only Korine’s wife Rachel – the fourth in this quartet of good time girls looking to break the monotony of their mundane lives – who really pushes the envelope and most emphatically embraces the hedonistic lifestyle.
Ultimately, the story is somewhat slight. Three of the girls – Candy (Hudgens), Brit (Benson) and Cotty (Korine) – rob a restaurant to garner some cash for the spring vacation and are joined in their trek south by Faith (Gomez), who is, not surprisingly, the first to retreat safely back into the world from which she was so determined to escape. Upon arriving in Florida, the girls immerse themselves in a world of drugs and alcohol that is shot in such a way – trippy visuals, jerky cameras and obscure angles – to represent the headspace of the characters; well we can only assume that is the intention. Arrested at a party, the girls are bailed from jail by wannabe gangster Alien (James Franco) who is menacing, hilarious and kinda pathetic all at the same time in his efforts to impress the girls. Freaked out and out of her depth, Faith heads home while the others turn the tables on Alien and instil within him a false sense of bravado that ultimately proves his undoing.
The film isn’t terrible, but neither is it the edgy, confrontational social commentary that many people may have expected from Korine. Franco is brilliant as Alien and the girls are all fine in roles where they don’t have to do a lot other than look pretty. The character of Faith is problematic because Korine constructs her in a way that suggests there is no middle ground between devout Christianity and utter debauchery. I mean, the filmmaker has completely overlooked the fact that most people occupy a space somewhere in between the two and that god and good times are not mutually exclusive.
Despite his industry outsider status, Harmony Korine has constructed a film whose female characters sit firmly within the sexist studio model of gender portrayals in which, for women, it is much more about how they look rather than what they can do. In reality, any young actress could have played any of these roles, albeit perhaps without generating as much publicity. Spring Breakers does offer some insight into the annual holiday ritual from which, it seems, our schoolies traditions were borne. Whilst the excessive never-ending consumption of alcohol and drugs is at the forefront of the narrative once the girls hit Florida, it is still hard to see how this film earned an R classification. See it by all means, but check your expectations at the door and you’ll enjoy it a whole lot more.