Faith, Brit, Candy and Cotty like playing with guns. They make guns with their fingers, pretending to shoot themselves in the head during boring class lectures. They drink from a squirt gun filled with whiskey, and they "shotgun" marijuana smoke into each other's mouths at parties. The movie they're in, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, has shotgun sounds all over the soundtrack.
A bath in neon slime, Spring Breakers is about the breaking point where misguided fantasy turns sinister, where the toy guns turn to real ones and where losing yourself in a week of partying slips into a deranged lifestyle. It's not a lot of fun.
The girls of Spring Breakers are undergrads at an anonymous college and played by stars of teen pap (with one exception, Cotty, played by Rachel Korine). We see only pieces of their school—a crappy lounge, a dark lecture hall, a fluorescent dorm hallway—before they escape to St. Petersburg, Fla., for a few days of partying that's mindless and occasionally dangerous. (That pool is over capacity! There are too many oiled bodies on that hotel balcony!) We know almost nothing about them except that one, Faith (Selena Gomez), is religious and belongs to a prayer group led by a guy who punctuates his sermons with lines like, "Y'all feel me?"
They do call home occasionally, which is how we learn that they are imagining they've found some kind of higher truth on this trip, and that they never want to go back. Maybe it's laughable for these girls to expect to find themselves while getting wasted in Florida, but Korine wants to push past that silliness and nudge their obliviousness into dangerous territory.
That's where James Franco comes in. Or rather that's where his character—Alien, the cornrowed, drug-hustling, silver-toothed part-time rapper—gets into the mix. Alien is the devil that lives in the darkness where the girls' fantasy turns into oblivion, and his favorite movie is (duh) Scarface. When they meet him, he brags about his money, his rough background and his hustling. Usually someone who's actually dangerous doesn't need to talk so much about it, and Alien seems like a phony. But Korine's cutaways to a bed covered with stacks of money and bricks of dope, and walls lined with a weapons cache big enough to lead an insurgency, show a different truth: Alien is the real thing. In a way.
Alien is an oblivious fantasy himself, a white guy's deranged idea of thuggy blackness: He lets the n-word slip once, in an antagonistic way, but one that he would argue is not racially motivated, a strange new iteration of the slur that seems to have been born with the millennial generation. The fact that he follows through with actual violence, and that he's found his soulmates in the two roughest girls, Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), makes him—like the girls—less laughable than dangerous.
Korine's last film, Trash Humpers, was about a group of degenerates in masks humping trees and acting nuts. It looked and felt very different from the sleek Spring Breakers, but it was about the same thing: a group of people taking on fake identities, losing track of where the line is and crossing it with deadly results. Korine made that movie look like a cruddy VHS recording to give it a cheap and unsettling believability.
In Spring Breakers, instead of juxtaposing the slipperiness of fantasy with the look of found footage, he underlines it. It's a glow-in-the-dark movie, with lots of orange bodies and pink fabrics. Korine is constantly cutting a little bit ahead, giving glimpses of scenes that haven't happened yet, and also cutting back to moments we've already seen. This slipperiness parallels the shifting identities of the girls as they adopt new personas and lose themselves inside their stupid dream. The girls might lose themselves in this, but we don't, and are regularly reminded what we're watching. "Act like you're in a movie or something," one of the girls says near the beginning.
Korine's loyalty to girls with ersatz identities has given Spring Breakers an ersatz feel itself. Back in 1998, characters in music video director Hype Williams' maligned film Belly came home after a heist and watched Korine's movie Gummo while they counted their money. They were rappers playing characters that wanted to act like gangsters. Fifteen years later, Korine has turned this inside out and made his Belly, though an arguably more self-aware one. Maybe too self-aware. Spring Breakers could use some of the visceral gunplay and gritty ludicrousness of the namechecked Scarface. But then, that would betray its subject matter of kids playing with guns who don't realize they're not toys anymore.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Set it off."