It’s not just the ample teen flesh that’s a little tender in the new film from Harmony Korine – the impish American filmmaker who wrote ‘Kids’ (1995) when he was around college age and directed ‘Gummo’ and ‘Mister Lonely’. Korine’s last full-length film was the scuzzy, experimental ‘Trash Humpers’, and he often keeps things unpolished in look and spiky in tone. But this absurd, brightly glowing tale of three girls (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) who rob a restaurant to fund a booze-and-sex holiday in Florida with a fourth friend (Selena Gomez) is surprisingly good-looking, dreamy and soft-centred.
Which is odd because, on the surface, Korine’s story overflows with nastiness: guns, drugs, dirty cash and endless sins of the flesh. Once our bikini’d quartet arrive in Florida, their hard-partying lands them in jail, until they’re bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a gangster in a sports car who’s all cornrows, gold teeth and loud shirts. At first it seems like Alien is a joke, but it soon turns out he’s a gangster for real – although he still comes across as a complete clown. It’s a bizarre and upending performance; Franco gives it all he’s got and is forever spinning guns and fondling cash (when he’s not playing Britney Spears on a white poolside piano).
What threatens to be a down ’n’ dirty tits ’n’ ass fest in the style of Larry Clark, or even a kids-in-peril thriller, actually turns into a warped fairytale of the American teen dream of hedonism and crime, one that takes itself just seriously enough not to be dismissed as trashy exploitation. It flirts with the mainstream – from which it borrows its style, music and actresses – but the film’s true intent is never fully clear. It’s campy and comic at times, but Korine also gives the film a downbeat, melancholic edge, with voiceovers, pointed repetition of dialogue and images, and hallucinatory camera work, sound and editing.
All this helps to prevent ‘Spring Breakers’ from becoming a full-on flesh fest, and tips it more towards the surreal. There’s no judgment here, nor is Korine simply celebrating the good-bad life into which Alien leads these teens. He’s mostly determined just to show us a good time, and he does that in full-on, bass-thumping, flesh-panning style, even if his lack of commitment to character and clear ideas is frustrating at times.