Harmony Korine combines leering exploitation with pitch-black satire in Spring Breakers, an audacious, sun-kissed nightmare that folds the director's familiar flair for the surreal into a narrative framework that results in his most coherent (and accessible) picture to date. While it may be a bit of a stretch to claim that Korine's vision as a filmmaker has "matured" given the amount of debauchery on display here, his grotesque caricature of youth pop culture appears to come from a more studied and controlled place than, say, Trash Humpers, but without sacrificing the discomforting undercurrent of danger that runs through many of his movies.
Left broke and alone on campus as their classmates head to Florida for some fun in the sun, coeds Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) steal a car, rob a local diner, and head south with their devoutly religious girlfriend Faith (Selena Gomez) in tow. But when the girls are thrown in jail following a police raid on a beachfront hotel room, it looks like the party is over. That is, until wild-eyed, cornrowed drug dealer Alien (James Franco) inexplicably posts their bail. Rightly sensing danger from the self-professed "gangster with a heart of gold," Faith boards a bus bound for school as her three friends fall into a dangerous cycle of drugs and depravity. Later, a scary run-in with Alien's bitter rival Archie (Gucci Mane) prompts another one of the girls to hightail it back to campus, leaving the remaining two to embrace their dangerous new lifestyle with reckless abandon.
From the opening shots of topless beach revelers getting blasted with cheap beer as Skrillex's Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites blares on the soundtrack, it's readily apparent that Korine is mocking the behavior of the typical spring breaker at the same time he's celebrating it. Of course, that contradiction may prove hard for viewers to process -- this is one of those films that straddles the line between satire and sincerity so stealthily that one could see it becoming a staple of sororities if taken at face value -- but as Candy, Brit, and Cotty fall for Alien's malevolent charm, Korine's warped sensibilities reveal a certain amount of contempt for this youthful rite of passage. Yet thanks to Gomez, whose nuanced performance subtly pulls Faith's internal conflict to the surface as she succumbs to the temptation to escape with her friends, Korine confounds our expectations of where the story will lead while simultaneously following his ideas through to their logical conclusions. Naturally, logic and reality seem to be in short supply as the girls meet Alien and the mood of the film turns downright ominous, but Korine's method of contrasting small, honest, and intimate moments against broader, more explicit, and evocative imagery is the key to Spring Breakers' ability to keep us laughing even as two of the girls go packing and the others trade their fun in the sun for a much darker means of cutting loose. True, the story may prove skeletal and the character arcs nonexistent, but Korine is primarily concerned with tone here, and love him or hate him, that's one aspect of filmmaking he excels at.
Yes, there are moments in Spring Breakers when it feels like Korine is getting a twisted thrill out of jamming his camera in the crotches of Disney girls gone wild, but there's no doubt that his scantily clad starlets are in on the joke. They certainly show no fear in shedding the innocent images their careers were built on, and due to Korine's skillful use of repetition combined with Douglas Crise's unconventional editing, we become as mesmerized by hedonistic liturgy as the protagonists. Likewise, cinematographer Benoit Debie (Dario Argento's The Card Player and Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void) employs the garish color scheme of a vivid fever dream gone horribly awry, a tone that's perfectly complimented by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex's intense electronic score.
Meanwhile, at the intersection between funny and frightening sits Franco. As the character we're never quite sure we should laugh at or run from, his presence is one of the most compelling things about Spring Breakers and proves a key component in maintaining the film's addictively off-kilter tone. Korine and Franco throw caution to the wind in a bid to endear us to Alien, and for the most part, their efforts pay off handsomely. The twisted tenderness shared by the oddball character and his coed followers is best represented by an unforgettable sequence that finds Alien singing a Britney Spears ballad to the girls, donning pink balaclavas and automatic assault rifles against the backdrop of a scenic Florida sunset. As the scene fades into a montage of the group hog-tying frat boys and holding up a wedding, Spring Breakers becomes genuinely transgressive, transcending genre to become something entirely unique. Given that precious few filmmakers are adventurous enough to even attempt such a feat, that's quite an accomplishment unto itself, and reason enough to recommend this picture to any moviegoer who, like the main characters, craves a reminder of what it feels like to be truly alive.