"Spring Break. Spring Break forever."
Half-naked, writhing bodies soaked in inebriated abandon and covered in a haze of illicit smoke flash across the screen; a candy-colored explosion of hedonistic desires and empty thrills -- caught somewhere lost between dream and nightmare, where endless neon lights flicker and pulse, echoing in eternal vigil for pop icon gods and consumerist idols. It's a portrait of 21st century American youth, "liberated" from all responsibility, existing only on the thin surfaces of reality in a superficial malaise populated by a mob of adult children with cartoon souls. These are the images that crowd Harmony Korine's 'Spring Breakers,' challenging audiences to sort through a cornucopia of conflicted reactions, ranging from amusement, excitement, laughter, annoyance, and even deep rooted disturbance. Part biting satire seemingly aimed at critiquing our increasingly shallow culture, and part exploitative celebration of those very tendencies, the film is a provocative, funny, insightful, and contradictory motion picture. Though the director's true intentions remain elusive (maybe even to himself), the film's experimental visuals, narrative, and sound design manage to find unexpected poetry and cinematic beauty among music video depravity.
Taken at face value, the movie follows four college students, Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine), as they attempt to leave their boring school lives behind to have some fun during spring break. Unfortunately, they don't have the money to make the trip to St Petersburg, Florida, so Candy, Brit, and Cotty decide to hold up a restaurant. With their finances now secure, they hit the beaches and party non-stop -- but when the cops show up to put an end to the illegal festivities, the girls are arrested. Unable to pay their bail themselves, the perpetually bikini-clad foursome are instead freed by a local rapper/gangster called Alien (James Franco) who takes them further into a world of crime and debauchery. Will these seemingly "innocent" young girls be able to handle Alien's lifestyle, or will they start packing their bags for home?
Subversive is a word that's thrown out a lot to describe various pieces of art, and 'Spring Breakers' definitely fits into that rebellious and confrontational mold. Everything about the movie's marketing (right down to the cover of this very Blu-ray release) implies a broad, wild, trashy, but still very mainstream exploitation film aimed at young adults -- and while there are certainly elements of everything I just listed present throughout the runtime, the reality is, despite what its logline or trailer might insinuate, this is actually an abstract art film layered in darkly comedic irony and social commentary, and while it's never quite clear if Korine is truly ridiculing his subjects, the experience remains potently defiant. And perhaps no element of the production is as slyly and antagonistically audacious as the casting of its lead actresses.
Known for their family friendly Disney images, Vanessa Hudgens ('High School Musical'), Ashley Benson ('Pretty Little Liars'), and especially Selena Gomez ('The Wizards of Waverly Place') are brilliantly tossed out of their comfort zones. Korine uses their famous, wholesome on-screen baggage to his advantage, playing up the film's examination of pop star devoted culture and moral corruption exponentially. To this end, Gomez becomes the film's overt symbol of decency (right down to her character's name), taking on a typical religious good girl archetype that presents a pretty stark contrast to the rest of the ensemble. She serves as our moral compass throughout the runtime and Faith displays a sincere longing for a more fulfilling existence -- she just goes looking for it in the wrong place. Her eventual exit marks a shift in the movie's storytelling, taking us down a decidedly darker path.
Rachel Korine (the director's wife), Ashley Benson, and Vanessa Hudgens' characters go on to more fervently embrace the greedy and dangerous world they find themselves in. The latter pair become a particularly devious twosome, and their characters seem to relish every moment of spring break decadence. Unlike Gomez's Faith, however, they are much less fully fleshed out as human beings. Instead, they're more like thinly developed representations of a specific sect of society; a generation defined by the empty pop culture they consume, with identities, personalities, sexualities, and ambitions pieced together out of reality shows, video games, movies, pornography, cartoons, and music videos. They dance and laugh and drink and smoke and snort and screw -- but through Korine's lens and the actresses' performances, one is left questioning if they ever really feel any of it.
And then there's James Franco. Over the years, the eclectic thespian has gradually turned his career into a kind of bizarre performance art piece, and his choices in projects and roles often oscillate between daring and downright confusing. As Alien, the actor may actually give his very best performance, and he and the director craft a truly unique and totally memorable creation. A white, thugged out rapper and gangster, Alien is like an overgrown kid with too much money and too little regard for anything but himself and all his "shit." With a scraggly goatee, cornrows, silver grills, a Hawaiian shirt, some big guns, an almost constant, unsettling smile, and a pitch perfect accent, Franco becomes an ambassador of thug life acting as the girls' guide to the St. Petersburg underworld. Charismatic but inherently creepy, Alien is in a class all by himself, and Franco really disappears into the part, eliciting laughs and menace in equal measure. The character seems to enjoy getting a rise out of people, and gleefully savors every opportunity he has to try and shock his new female companions -- but beneath his frequently repulsive exterior is a deeper, childlike vulnerability and perhaps even an unabashedly (but extremely twisted) sweet side.
Through Alien, the girls, and a cavalcade of nameless, nearly faceless spring breakers, Korine probes deep into the shallow waters of what has become the new American Dream. More than just a visceral barrage of alcohol, drugs, and sex, the film uses these concepts to examine society's larger desires for vacant pleasures and materialistic success. One of the most amusing and telling sequences involves Franco's Alien describing his life philosophy while going through a laundry list of all the "shit" he owns. "Look at my shit," he proudly exclaims as he points out outlandish items around his room like Japanese throwing stars, nunchuks, sais, blue Kool-Aid, and a copy of 'Scarface' on endless repeat. He's the poster boy for the gangster consumerist ideal, and it’s a lifestyle that apparently appeals to pretty young coeds as well.
Complementing the film's examination of consumerism, Korine's commentary on sexuality is equally potent and deeper than one might initially surmise. Though the camera often goes out of its way to exploit and sexualize the movie's four young starlets at every turn, the level of depravity on display and fever dream-like POV often casts the images and situations in a foreboding and unpleasant light, making it uncomfortable to watch the numerous, ostensibly gratuitous shots of naked or scantily clad women. The film presents copious amounts of T & A but very little actual titillation. Instead, there is an uneasiness to the movie's superficial sexuality, an emptiness to the erotic imagery that mirrors the emptiness of the characters' own actions.
Attempting to further the director's idea of "film as energy," the movie's visual and editing style is quite arresting and hypnotic, leaving conventional aesthetics behind for an overtly avant garde experimentation with form. Indeed, 'Spring Breakers' actually has much more in common with the works of Gaspar Noe and Terrence Malick, or Shane Carruth's recent 'Upstream Color' than it does with standard Hollywood fare. More of a collage of cascading montages that fold and flow into one another than a traditional assemblage of scenes, there is a frequently incomplete feel to sequences in the film, and in the special features Korine describes the movie as a series of microscenes that repeat and loop. To this point, time is a loose concept here as shots of the past and future commonly sneak into the present, recalling the structure of pop music with recurring motifs and a chorus. This repeating rhythm of new and old shots gives the film a constant sense of momentum and paradoxical stagnation, which is further reinforced by free flowing steadicam and handheld camera movements the frequently circle around the characters.
As one might expect, the party scenes are home to some of the film's most disorienting cinematography, and it's in these sequences that Korine experiments the most, including the use of a low-fi morphing effect that makes it look like the characters' movements are melting from frame to frame. This all reinforces their drug-addled perspective, placing the movie in a nearly surreal haze. Voice over narration and a perfectly attuned electronic soundtrack by Skrillex and Cliff Martinez keep all these dizzying images glued together, guiding the elliptical editing through a steady tempo that bursts open in fits of flashy excess and slows down in delicate, almost lyrical passages.
Contrasts and juxtapositions also become a defining factor of the movie's style, and the film features frequent cross cutting between disparate scenes or incongruous narration, highlighting satirical observations through cinematic technique. For instance, early scenes feature direct cuts between Faith at a church meeting and the rest of her friends doing drugs at their dorms, and later on phone messages of Faith detailing the spiritual beauty of her spring break experience to her grandmother are played out over wild shots of partying. The core juxtapositions here are rather simple and obvious, but the execution is still strong, enhancing the movie's deeper themes with dark, sardonic humor and affecting commentary.
All of these visual and satirical elements come to a head in the film's most celebrated scene, a violent yet deliriously beautiful and funny montage of Alien and his girls holding up people at gun point all set to Britney Spears' "Everytime." A perfect fusion of sight and sound, the sequence could be interpreted as a kind of tonal mission statement for the film, exposing its sharp farcical edge in full force. Marked by images of pretty girls in pink ski masks with unicorn patches holding large shotguns and assault rifles while twirling in balletic dance to the sweet sounds of Spears' pop ballad, the scene crystallizes everything that the movie has to say about the culture it's examining, and is destined to become a piece of cult film iconography.
A scathing critique and paradoxical ode to superficiality, reckless abandon, and materialism, 'Spring Breakers' is an utterly bizarre and unique sardonic fever dream of a film. While some might accuse the movie of being everything it seemingly seeks to satirize, there really is a lot more going on here, clearly separating the film from vacuous efforts like 'Sucker Punch' or '126.96.36.199.' As star James Franco himself astutely points out in the included special features, the movie attempts to have its cake and eat it too by being an indictment of shallow culture while simultaneously imbuing those elements throughout the DNA of its style. And even as harsh as some of the picture's social criticism has been widely interpreted, Korine never loses a certain level of sympathy and even understanding for his characters. They're stuck in an MTV sponsored purgatory, bereft of all substance, but key moments here and there show that there might still be a sincere heart buried beneath their violent tendencies and selfish desires -- and for better or worse the girls are fully empowered, placing the responsibility for their choices squarely in their own hands. The film's esoteric visual, editing, and narrative style will likely turn off many viewers, and its plentiful drug use and nudity won't be for everyone, but for those interested in experimental forms of filmmaking, 'Spring Breakers' proves to be a darkly comedic, appropriately disturbing, and at times quite fascinating piece of satire... or exploitation... or perhaps a bit of both... or maybe neither...
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate presents 'Spring Breakers' in a Blu-ray/UltraViolet Combo Pack. A BD-50 disc comes housed in a keepcase with a carboard slipcover. After some skippable trailers, the screen transitions to a standard menu. The release is region A coded.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. With a visually inventive, hypnotic, and at times arresting picture, the image is quite impressive, though the cinematography's more experimental elements might not appeal to some viewers.
As one would expect from a new release, the source is in pristine condition and a light to moderate layer of natural grain is present throughout adding a welcome sense of filmic texture to the picture. Detail is very strong, highlighting all the alluring curves of the film's attractive cast and every thread of Franco's cornrow hairstyle. An almost hyper real, candy coated color scheme is present throughout, highlighting stylized neon hues in the film's impressive lighting and production designs. Transitioning from hot pinks, deep reds, and somber blues, the colors really enhance the experience and mood of individual scenes, evoking the bright atmosphere of the beach and the more dingy and tense environment of the hotel after parties and gangster locations. Contrast is high without blooming, and while black levels are usually nice and inky, there are some nighttime shots that appear a little elevated and tinged slightly blue. The filmmakers throw in a few experimental touches including a low-fi morphing effect and the use of VHS footage and while these shots lack the HD detail of the rest of the material, they remain artistically potent.
Fueled by a daring style that oscillates between bold, aggressive imagery and dreamy, subdued montages, 'Spring Breakers' offers an impressive but decidedly unconventional visual experience. The transfer itself is technically sound and while some might not be a fan of the chosen aesthetic style, I found the eye-catching saturation and abstract compositions to be quite striking.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track along with optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. When I first saw the movie in theaters back in March, I remember walking away very impressed by the sound design, and while I didn't find the mix to be quite as immersive as I remembered, the audio work here is still very engrossing and inspired.
Dialogue and narration are clear and clean throughout with no balance issues to report. The soundstage itself is integral to the film's rhythm and the score becomes an essential component of the design work. The music composed by Skrillex and Cliff Martinez has a dreamy, sometimes haunting electronic quality to it that perfectly fits the images on screen, carrying the visuals from scene to scene in a constant, flowing tempo. The tracks all come through with strong fidelity, separation, and great range with crisp highs and deep, full-bodied lows. A delicate but potent sense of space is also present throughout the speakers, offering some solid but restrained atmosphere in the surrounds, subtly but effectively bolstering the film's many crowded party scenes. Isolated, quieter sounds like lighters and bong hits are given larger emphasis, drawing the audience into the increasingly deprave world of the film's characters, and the repeated sound of gun clicks becomes an auditory motif throughout the mix.
Though I didn't find the experience to be quite as enveloping as I remember from the film's theatrical exhibition, the soundtrack is full of interesting, unconventional design choices that perfectly complement the movie's similarly experimental visuals.
Lionsgate has put together a solid collection of supplements, including a commentary, making of doc, and outtakes. All of the special features are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and no subtitle options.
Harmony Korine's 'Spring Breakers' is a cinematically experimental indictment and exaltation of superficial excess, empty sexuality, and materialistic desire. Though humorous, the movie is also darkly disturbing, revealing potent social commentary beneath its surface level exploitation. The video transfer and audio mix are both impressive, offering an unconventional but very engrossing experience. The included bonus features provide some worthwhile insights into the production and director's goals. Some viewers might find the picture's esoteric style and sexual content to be off-putting, but for those open to its avant garde flourishes, this disc definitely gets my recommendation.