Here is a film, to borrow a phrase from Don Delillo, about “the neon epic of Saturday night,” a DayGlo beach-borne fantasy of bright lights smeared and shining; it exists in this strange and beautiful place upon which Malick, Mann, and MTV incongruously converge. This is art-house maximalism with a tenor like poetry, an incisive and critical drama unafraid to relish and indulge in the subject it intends to deconstruct. You could call it “high-trash” cinema; it collects the cast-aside bric-a-brac of an ostensibly bankrupt culture—Harmony Korine operates here like some rigorously anthropological Katamari, rolling up anything and everything in his path—and transforms it into something earnestly, maybe even transcendently, gorgeous.
Spring Breakers manages in one beer-steeped swoop to both criticize and ultimately redeem the most vacuous detritus it can find: dubstep, coke, video games, beer bongs, keg stands, dreadlocks, cheap 40s, Gucci Mane’s face tattoo, the state of Florida, and the titular spring break as not only a vacation but as a very real-seeming state of being. I don’t want to oversell its intellectual or aesthetic aspirations, but in many ways the film is like Weekend reimagined as a daring iteration of Girls Gone Wild. Or, hell, maybe Jean-Luc Godard’s Step Up Revolution: It’s a radical take on a sexy summer drama by a man with serious artistic ambitions. It’s also quite obviously the best film currently touring the festival circuit.
Korine, deliberately or not, seems to set his film up for failure from the outset. The galling, conversation-starting montage which opens Spring Breakers suggests that one is settling in for a very different sort of experience: Sumptuous, slow-motion tracking shots across endless rows of disconcertingly young-looking bodies as they cut loose on the beach are clearly designed to implicate the audience in the film’s immediate and rather lecherous voyeurism (a few close-ups of rump-shaking resemble no less than Chris Cunningham’s music video for Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker,” though naturally these faces, when they’re acknowledged at all, remain model-perfect). What’s established here—and established with great skill, mind you—is an angry cynicism regarding the subject matter that would have grown exhausting had it been retained over the course of the film. But when Spring Breakers switches gears minutes later, shifting from the bodies on the beach to those of its winsome quartet of protagonists, that in-built bitterness dissipates almost entirely, and a sudden empathy and generosity overtakes the proceedings; rather than cruelly mocking or dismissing his leads in contempt of their insipid sensibility, Korine probes them for something deeper.
The vapidity of their milieu is certainly criticized (the film is savvy enough to express its discomfort with the atmosphere of spring break even when the parties, and bodies, are being relished with glee), but the characters themselves are redeemed, perhaps even exonerated, by the strength of their conviction and depth of their will. Despite being a kind of classical “downfall” narrative, about young girls falling into the wrong crowd and having their innocence apparently corrupted (an archetypical outline that Korine undermines with remarkable wit), Spring Breakers is more about the strength of these women rather than some weakness that portends their fall from grace. What I think everybody assumed might happen when the news of the cast broke—Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson are on loan from their lives as teen idols—is that Korine would make a point of undermining their wholesome image by transforming them into trashy Lolitas; what happened instead, incredibly, is that he made them into much fiercer and more overtly powerful figures than their daytime iconography could have accounted for.
What’s going on here, in effect, is reverse slut-shaming: Spring Breakers makes a point of exaggerating the vivacious sexuality of these women in order the dispel the myth that assertive or even aggressively sexual women can’t be strong, deep, and generally well-rounded people. Which isn’t to say that Spring Breakers casts its leads as unimpeachably romanticized heroes (comic-book superheroes by the end, perhaps, but otherwise not exactly ideal role models), but the very fact that it avoids stereotypical victimization or any other condescending bullshit is reason enough to laud its core ideology.
There’s so much more to love here (on strictly aesthetic terms, Spring Breakers is straight-up astounding, recalling everything from the neon skylines of Miami Vice to the jagged, repetitious editing of The Tree of Life and beyond), and even more to digest further. Even on a more basic level, the film is enormously entertaining, particularly the hilarious, actorly turn by a Riff Raff’d-up James Franco: Stretches of the presumably ad-libbed riffing on his Scarface-inspired kingpin’s lifestyle offer some of the most quotable one-liners in recent memory, and a centerpiece montage set to Britney Spears’s “Everytime” stands out as easily the best thing Korine’s ever done. This is a film that should, in theory, offer principally superficial pleasures, and yet somehow its glossy, appealing aesthetics form only one part of a considerably richer work.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—16.