Startling 'Spring Breakers' Film Explores Sexual Coercion Turned On Its Head

During the month of spring-break reveling, on the weekend of St. Paddy’s debauchery and precisely on the epic Friday of the Ides of March, Harmony Korine’s new film, Spring Breakers, made its limited-release debut in New York and LA. And quite a debut it was: the film pulled in $270,000 from showings in only three US theaters, a limited-release record for 2013. As the film expands its reach from three to about 1,000 theaters this coming weekend, it looks like these sunbathing revelers can expect serious dolla bills, y’all. 

But beyond the box office success, for a man Werner Herzog deemed “The future of American cinema,” it looks like the future is here.  Korine playing spring break is like Gould playing Goldberg: the work of a great master. In fact, it’s so masterful that unlike Korine’s directorial debut, Gummo, you don’t necessarily need to really “get” Spring Breakers to enjoy it. There’s a bit more leeway this time, no doubt due in part to the fact that Breakers is fueled by the annual American beach phenomenon that famously gyrates its irreverent hips through Florida, and not by a tornado that gyrated through a small town in Ohio in 1974, with barely any lasting fanfare at all. We’re Americans, and we’re choosy about which disasters hold our attention. Well, that and we like to see Disney stars being naughty.  

So, why insult your intelligence by giving you a plot summery, or detailing the non-linear timing and Dadaist montage element, or musing on the my-oh-my! of Selena Gomez gone bad, or ridiculously suggesting that the use of blacklight represents blackface, or trying to come up with some vast and simple statement about culture or race that wraps it all up into one sparkly pink g-string? This film is too advanced for that. You can figure those things out on your own…or not. This film doesn’t care.

It doesn’t care whether the image of sun-kissed college coeds sucking off patriotically red-white-and-blue popsicles—a CliffsNotes summation of America in the now—makes you horny or introspective. It doesn’t care whether the unicorn ski-mask ballet choreographed to Britney Spears’ “Everytime” makes you laugh or cry (I cried). And ultimately, it doesn’t care about the fact that the same two girls who were drawing dick during their African American history class coincidentally end up shooting a bunch of holes through a pack of black gangsters…only to drive off in the gangsters’ orange Lambo. It’s just sort of how it all happened, that’s all.

Korine is known to mix actors with non-actors in his films, and Spring Breakers is no exception. The star-studded cast mingles with real beach bunnies, strippers and thugs throughout the film, which makes for the kind of performances you can only truly achieve by dipping at least a pinkie toe into the dangerous seas of method acting. In the scene where our four leading ingénues first visit a local St. Pete party, accompanied by rapper-cum-dealer “Alien” (James Franco), the acting comes from actual nerves, discomfort and exhilaration—all bubbling up through the ladies’ impeccably true performances.

These are real gangsters in the scene with our Disney stars, not ones from Central Casting. We watch as our heroines discover themselves and their own sexuality within the skin of their characters, who are doing just the same, and the result is something that sticks to the brain cells long after you’ve left the theater.   

It is in this same tense environment that Korine captures the entire emotional, mental and sensual process of coercion in a way that no film ever has. We see Alien try to convince Faith (Selena Gomez) to stay with him and her girlfriends in St. Pete. We see her frightened and torn and very nearly in the vice-grip of Alien’s tender manipulation. We see her snap out of the sundrenched hypnotism, but as in real life, it isn’t easy for her and it isn’t black and white. 

Korine captures the very essence of the gray area—those stupefying, cliff-hanging moments in life when anything at all can happen, the times when it takes enormous strength to pinpoint the location where your real self is hiding, sinking somewhere in uncharted waters. It’s hard to think of another example in cinema where this particular inner process, one that can swallow a young woman in a wave of insecurity, has been so clearly visually understood. 

But then we see coercion turned upside-down and backward: two coeds (Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson) make Alien cooperate and blow their big guns, a semi-automatic swordfight in Franco’s “scaredy cat” mouth. Now this is something we really never get to see in film: women putting genuine and palpable fear into the heart of a man. A deer in grillz and headlights, we see it mix in every pore of Franco’s performance, this fear-playing-cool that presses him into a cheeky act of sex, or humor, that might make things okay again, saving himself the only way he can think of at the time. 

These are the moments when life is no longer a “video game,” as the film suggests, at least for someone. It could be camp except the fear is real. A man gives in to the pressure to play along, submitting to the coercion of those kitten voices echoing “scaredy cat” in his thug-boy pliant brain: he’ll do the things he’s scared to do and be their fall guy. Korine creates a world where we’re not ashamed to like it.


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