spring breakers 2

Imagine, if you will, a film about a religious ascetic. This monk, or priest, or whatever he is, lives a secluded lifestyle away from human intercourse. He indulges in no pleasures, eats only the barest of meals, and devotes his time near-exclusively to spiritual contemplation. Many of us would be inclined to say that this is a foolish man, an unsympathetic figure missing out on the substance of human life. Yet there exists a rich history of spiritual cinema, from Dreyer to Bresson to Dumont, that challenges that assumption, locating value in the transcendental isolation of withdrawal. Now let’s flip the script. Picture a set of people whose entire existence is the fulfillment of desire through experience, the consumption of pleasure. They imbibe alcohol to the point of oblivion so that they can degenerate into a violent mass of bodies, practicing total self-indulgence through self-negation. They seem to have no aims, no cares, no worries, outside of their overwhelming lust for sensation. Such people, one imagines, would be really hard to access cinematically. What movie could find value in their lives in the way that previous films have done for their seeming opposites? That movie is Spring Breakers, a film that scrambles traditional modes of identification, engagement, and critical distance by embracing contradiction to an absurd, nearly heroic degree.

When college students Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) find themselves lacking the funds to follow their peers down south for Spring Break, they rob a local eatery. With their religious friend Faith (Selena Gomez) in tow, the girls flee their campus in search of a land of beaches, boobs, and beer (hilariously imagined in the terrifying opening scene). They arrive in Florida, plunging into the party of their dreams: huge crowds of attractive, young, uniformly white bodies convulsing in unison. Upon getting thrown in jail, still clad in bikinis, the foursome meets Alien (James Franco), the giddy, pathetic, menacing, and strangely likable rapper/small time gangster who serves as their emissary into the underworld of Spring Break.

Spring Breakers never misses a chance to draw attention to the horrors of its Florida milieu, but as it progresses it becomes more and more saturated with the hedonistic pleasures of its protagonists, even as those pleasures become more violent and uncomfortable. Writer/director Harmony Korine doesn’t spend much time characterizing his lead quartet of coeds, but instead treats them as a single organism. Faith is the one exception, differentiated from the others by her dark hair and her religious identity, but she serves mainly to make the same point I did at the beginning of this piece, telling her Grandma on the phone that Florida is “the most spiritual place I’ve ever been.” There’s plenty to be said about Korine’s cultural critique (and perhaps its failings), but the aspects I found most engaging in Spring Breakers were those that dove headfirst into the mud pit of contemporary youth culture.

The only thing that outweighs Korine’s contempt for this subject is his love for it, as evidenced by Benoit Debie’s lush cinematography and Douglas Crise’s viscerally loopy editing. This critique/exploitation dichotomy is too outspoken to qualify as a tension; it’s a full-blown contradiction, in the most gloriously irreconcilable sense. As someone with moderate-to-strong prejudices about Florida/dubstep/capitalism/teen culture, I had my initial worries that Korine would just be preaching to my choir; yet my first viewing of the film was dominated by the pleasure principle rather than its antithesis, which some viewers have find more striking. A second trip down to Tampa is surely called for (subjects for further research: what exactly is Korine doing by playing down sex in favor of violence? And is his treatment of race a devastating critique of white America’s subjugation of African Americans through cultural appropriation, or an unreflective acceptance of racial signifiers?) but for now I’m sufficiently impressed with Korine’s ability to turn indulgence into an undismissable force of bliss. Where other filmmakers might have demonized the titular adventurers, treating their values as incompatible with the presumed sensibilities of the viewers, Korine draws us into their monastery of ecstasy, reminding us that for all its flaws, youth culture is not an empty system, but is in fact packed with a richness of dionysian sensation that deserves more than empty lip service.

Spring Breakers is out now in limited release.