The very idea of Harmony Korine making a film with the young female stars of Pretty Little Liars, Wizards of Waverly Place and High School Musical is where the cognitive dissonance of Spring Breakers begins. Are we about to witness Korine taking a plunge into the mainstream, or is this film his subversion of it? In fact, the whole of Spring Breakers is something of a head-scratcher. I'm not entirely sure what Korine is trying to do with this picture or what we're supposed to be getting from the experience. The film offers a number of sublime, vivid moments as it follows its teen stars on a spring break jaunt gone bad, but as the colourful end credits rolled I felt nothing but relief.
Perhaps my dissatisfaction (sliding rapidly towards dislike) with Spring Breakers has something to do with how tiresome I tend to find long scenes of teenagers partying and having an "awesome" time. Korine opens his film with slow-motion shots of bikini-clad women gyrating in front the camera while young men stand around them, agog at the sight. Much beer is swilled and the music, by Skrillex, is a cacophony. Although this doesn't look like my idea of a good time, four teens in particular are desperate to make it out to Florida to experience spring break for themselves. The one stumbling block is a lack of funds, and so three of the girls decide to rob the patrons of a diner and then pick up their devout friend (the aptly named Faith) before driving off in search of good times.
Faith is played by Selena Gomez. I would give you the names of her three companions too, but I can't for the life of me remember them. By virtue of her religious background and her nagging doubts over the route they're taking, Faith emerges as the one member of the group who has something resembling a character (she also has the least screen time, which is a shame). The parts played by Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine are entirely interchangeable, and the film gives us no reason to invest anything in their journeys. Their monotone, tentative performances don't imbue the parts with any sense of life either; they're just four girls in bikinis, no more interesting than the many anonymous girls milling around in the background.
For a while, at least, the filmmaking proves enthralling enough to make up for the deficiencies of Spring Breakers. The diner heist is one of Korine's major directorial coups, as he stays inside the getaway car while we get glimpses of the girls' gun-toting antics through the windows, the whole sequence being filmed in a single unbroken shot. Spring Breakers has been shot by the hugely talented French cinematographer Benoît Debie, and his lurid, abstract, neon-hued work is as striking here as it was in Gaspar Noé's Irreversible and Enter the Void. This is undeniably a film that looks and sounds like nothing else, and the dreamlike tone Korine aims for is sometimes intoxicating, but it isn't long before the manner in which he has assembled this footage becomes grating. The repetition of sound and image begins to pall before the film is halfway done, and the film begins to feel a lot longer than it is. "Spring break...spring break forever" is a frequent, drowsy refrain, and it occasionally did feel that this film was never going to end.
Ultimately, how one reacts to Spring Breakers may depend largely on how one reacts to James Franco's contribution to it. He is the film's star turn, throwing himself fully into the part of Alien, a ridiculous caricature of a white rapper who has adopted every possible gangsta rap trope. After he bails the girls out of jail, they become seduced by the money, guns and material wealth possessed by Alien, who proclaims "Look at all my shit" as he gives them a guided tour of his opulent crib. Many people will doubtlessly find Franco's portrayal of Alien to be hilarious and endlessly quotable, but I found him tiresome and problematic in the way his over-the-top performance quickly dominates the picture, while the girls seems even more uncertain in his presence. While does fashion one particularly memorable sequence around Alien and the girls – an oddly sincere and affecting rendition of Britney Spears' Everytime – too often his indulgence of this character is incredibly monotonous.
That monotony is finally what killed Spring Breakers for me. The lack of narrative thrust isn't necessarily an insurmountable obstacle, nor is Korine's failure to clearly elucidate the film's themes, but the crippling boredom that I felt throughout long stretches of the film is fatal. Of course, Korine has never been in the crowd-pleasing game, and his previous films have often tested both the boundaries of narrative cohesion and the patience of his viewers, but the hollow nihilism of his latest picture makes it a grim slog to sit through. Is Spring Breakers celebrating, spoofing or indicting youth culture? Is he empowering his characters or exploiting them? I don't know what Korine had in mine with this film, but all I can see is another empty provocation, even if it is a very pretty one.