For a generation of youthful television viewers, MTV’s spring break coverage defined the annual pilgrimage in which college kids ventured to Florida for a week or two of sex and booze in the sun. Starting in 1986, the network effectively sold this fantasy by repeating endless images of scantily clad bodies gyrating away on beaches to the latest pop hits and beautiful people lounging around the pool. Taking this once-popular programming as a jumping-off point, Harmony Korine’s hallucinatory Spring Breakers begins with a montage of college kids enacting an R-rated version of MTV’s coverage, bare breasts being soaked with beer and plentiful bong hits replacing the more television-friendly images peddled by the former music-video giant. Korine also endows these images with sinister undertones, achieved via oversaturated colors, rapid cutting between images, slow motion, and an abrasive techno score. Thus the director at once announces his cut-and-paste pop technique, establishes the dreamlike state that marks his film and speaks to his characters’ longings, and hints that there will be no shortage of bad shit to come.
After this opening sequence, the director shifts the action to a drab college campus where three identical-looking blondes, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine), bemoan the lack of funds that would allow them to partake of the spring-break dream. When hitting up religious-minded fellow student and travel companion Faith (Selena Gomez) doesn’t secure the necessary dough, they rob a diner and make their way down to Florida where they begin the rounds of partying and female bonding. However, soon after they arrive, the quartet is arrested only to get bailed out by a would-be rapper and drug dealer, Alien (James Franco, sporting his now-infamous cornrows and silver grill). Hanging out with this very strange individual at his beachfront mansion, the girls become enamored of the guns, drugs, and money that are everywhere to be found in Alien’s digs and, after Faith’s early defection, the remaining girls join their new companion in a life of crime, culminating in the assassination of a rival drug dealer.
Or do they? One of the effects of Korine’s feverish, hypnotic style is that the whole thing feels like a fantasy—or rather a nightmare perversion of the American dream. Dictated by the expectations that St. Petersburg, Florida is the best place on Earth for two weeks every year—a sentiment repeated in voiceover by Faith despite all visual evidence to the contrary—and then finding those hopes dashed with their arrest, the women live out another fantasy. If snorting lines of coke and fucking is one aspect of American privilege that we wink at, then gangsterism is the dark side of that lifestyle, an extension of the same impulses (sex and power) that dictate why kids flock to Florida every year in the first place—and a culture similarly mainstreamed by MTV.
Korine’s movie doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the relationship between these two fantasy realms (except to suggest that the sense of lurking violence that underlines spring breaking with its intimations of potential rape, finds natural expression in the related impulse of St. Pete’s other economic center), but it doesn’t really have to. Spinning a hypnotic, repetitive web of sound and images, Korine crafts a vision, not an argument, but a no less beguilingly weird (and occasionally repulsive) one at that.
Even some of the film’s more intellectually feeble conceits, such as juxtaposing the girls’ telephone calls home to their parents with footage of their not-so-innocent behavior that proves them liars, becomes part of the warp and woof of the film’s texture the more these sequences are repeated. Only Faith’s plight (no irony apparently intended in her naming) and her unsuccessful search for utopia brings the film too close to the sort of character-based drama it has no business trading in. But for the most part, as the movie spins into more and more gonzo territory, two of the girls sticking around long after all their classmates have gone home, the oozy surreality takes over completely and the sense of endlessness, of being stuck in a world that obeys its own logic and leaves no room for escape, becomes overwhelming. Desperately, the characters repeat the refrain “Spring break forever!” In one regard, it’s a hollow sentiment, a lament for their inability to achieve the traditional thrills promised by MTV. In another, more significant sense, however, it’s an accurate descriptor of the film’s K-hole sensibility. For Korine, spring break is a beautiful nightmare from which we will never awake.