Anniversary Retrospective: In Defense of Harmony Korine’s ‘Spring Breakers’

Five years ago today, a young little production company called A24 released Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers onto American audiences. It was the height of spring break season in the States, but as a broke and bookish high school junior, my only escapist thrills came from heading to my town’s multiplex with a friend, buying two tickets to whatever PG-13 schlock was playing, and sneaking into the sex-and-drug-filled art movie with James Franco doing a Riff Raff impression and Selena Gomez in a pink bikini.

Critically, Spring Breakers did okay — five-star ratings from the New York Times and The Village Voice were tempered by absolute pans by The Washington Post and Time. Claudia Puig of USA Today called it “mind-numbingly dull and off-putting,” and general audiences, who came in expecting “Girls Gone Wild” with their Disney favorites, reacted similarly. Moralizing moms and bummed bros aside, the central argument amounted to, “Is this trashy genius or self-absorbed nonsense?”

Film Review Spring Breakers
Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine and Vanessa Hudgens in Spring Breakers © A24

At the time, I was oblivious to Harmony Korine’s messy bad-boy reputation, never having seen Kids or Trash Humpers or the rest — yet something about Spring Breakers stuck with me. It became a regular talking point of mine, the subject of one of my first film papers, and the foundation of a tasteless Halloween costume and running joke with multiple groups of friends. Sure, my persistence resulted in almost as many eye rolls as the movie itself, but I couldn’t shake my commitment to the neon-lighted nightmare.

Now, as a proper film student heading into my first (and last) debauched spring break vacation, it feels high time to reflect on what makes Spring Breakers tick, and offer my defense of one of the dumbest, most beautiful critiques of American values in recent cinema. It’s more sticky than gritty, and it has no interest in obeying all the conventions of the party movies or neo-noirs that have come before it. Instead, it takes elements from both, melding them with New Wave tropes and Korine’s own brand of grotesque artistic pleasure.

Spring Breakers’ opening scene is nothing short of a modern Bacchanalia: an oversaturated, seemingly endless beach is inundated by bare bodies, screaming in fervent joy as they douse and are doused in beer, gyrating in slo-mo to wildly thumping dubstep. Captured by famed Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie of Enter the Void, this sequence of excess sets the stage for a film dripping with sensory detail, from Debie’s neon color palette to a stunning score composed by Skrillex and Drive‘s Cliff Martinez. Each detail adds to the film’s ludicrous yet captivating vision of American youth culture pushed to its extremes. Pearls were clutched and eyes certainly rolled, but there’s no denying the attention-grabbing power of this wild preamble.

The premise of the film that follows is rather simple: Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine), Faith (Selena Gomez) and Brit (Ashley Benson), four college friends eager to escape their humdrum campus life, decide to rob a chicken shack in order to fund their spring break adventure to Florida. Faith, the church-going good girl, has to be pulled along for the ride by the rest of her friends. Yet their first major criminal act offers only a glimpse into the dangerous lives they’re going to be living with Alien, the gangster drug lord played by a grill-wearing James Franco.

It can be challenging to watch Franco do his shtick these days, but Alien’s macho swagger ramblings are laugh-out-loud ridiculous, working to build up the fever-dream universe in which the characters are living. His star-making “Look at my shit!” monologue is up there with “You can’t handle the truth!” in terms of sheer power. Although Alien is the gonzo heart and soul of this movie, the ladies get to show off their fair share of weirdness: in another memorable scene, they don pink unicorn ski masks, tiger monokinis and DTF sweatpants, grab a few of Alien’s rifles, and dance around his white piano to Britney Spears’ ballad “Everytime.”

Spring breakers sunset
Rachel Korine, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and James Franco in Spring Breakers © A24

Although this portion of Spring Breakers, on top of so many others, may seem like provocation for the sake of itself, there’s a lot more going on under the surface than Korine’s ego. For one, the female stars of the film aren’t playthings for the male gaze. Spring Breakers plays on societal expectations of the portrayal of women in film by intentionally and overtly eroticizing the lead actresses. For most of the movie, the girls walk around in nothing but neon bikinis, the camera lingering on their thighs and bra cups. They make sexual jokes, writhe around in their dorms and parking lots, and share almost-kisses as they breathe the same pot smoke. They encourage the lust of the audience and the other characters in the film, but remain in complete control of their sexuality as they do so. In this way, they become active participants in the film’s narrative and become more than the “bearers of meaning,” as film theorist Laura Mulvey has put it. And despite the violence in the film, the girls’ are never subject to sexual violence or predation; their attitude toward the men around them eliminates their power to intimidate or violate.

While we’re getting psychoanalytical, it’s worth mentioning that the film is loaded with phallic imagery. From popsicles and beer bottles to lollipops and guns, this imagery is overt and intentional. But much like the eroticized depiction of the lead actresses, phallic imagery is used to subvert the classical Hollywood order of women as subjects to be acted upon. In a scene that is critical to a larger shift in the narrative, Candy and Brit threaten Alien with his own guns, resulting in an act of gender-flipped pseudo-fellatio.

In addition to being wildly entertaining, this scene completely inverts the existing power dynamic; Alien may have been responsible for getting the girls out of prison, but now they have the upper hand. “You think you can just own us?” Candy asks. “We don’t need you. What if we just used you to come here?” Brit elaborates. Although the act amounts to elaborate foreplay in the context of the onscreen action, it truly allows the girls to reclaim their power from Alien, which becomes central to the film’s conclusion.

The ultimate indicator of Spring Breakers’ feminist bent comes with Candy and Brit’s revenge on rival gang leader Big Arch, played by rapper Gucci Mane, after he injures Cotty in a drive-by shooting. In this final scene, the two girls take to his mansion in their ski masks and bikinis and shoot every guard they see leading up to Big Arch in his bathtub. Despite Alien’s death, they are successful and drive off unscathed. The very last shot is upside-down, a flashback from Alien’s body’s point of view as he lay dead on the ground and the girls run away up the dock. This alignment of the camera with Alien is symbolic of the audience’s alignment with the defeated male figure; after 90 minutes of sexualizing these girls, the viewer is left to feel powerless. In the words of Ayesha Siddiqi for The New Inquiry, “That is how a film starring four young women in bikinis subverts the trope of female bodies as sites of experience for others. Spring Breakers pumps you with a full erection only to laugh at your boner later.”

James Franco
James Franco in Spring Breakers © A24

It’s important to note that the feminism of Spring Breakers appears to ignore women of color, another point raised by Siddiqi. All of the named female characters are white as snow (or white-passing), and the only black women we see, besides an extra or two in party scenes, are naked sex workers performing for Big Arch and his gang. This issue is so blatant, it can be teased out as a criticism of white feminism itself—after all, Korine seems particularly interested in the grotesque of privileged, selfish, and white American youth culture, which is an inherently non-inclusive space. Yet Spring Breakers doesn’t provide quite enough evidence to make this reading a reality. Korine isn’t interested in neat conclusions, but he also doesn’t seem particularly interested in showing how black women can reclaim their sexualization along with his Disney princesses.

It’s impossible to change the fact that, for the uninitiated moviegoer, the movie is a complete bait-and-switch. It lures you in with the promise of a sleazy-more-than-sexy crime drama, all neon lights and Disney stars and male bravado, and then delivers a slow, sensory art film with a white feminist current running throughout. This requires patience, a specific sense of humor and an open mind, and even then, one can only take so many cyclic musings on the spirituality of Florida. But by turning audience expectations on their head, Spring Breakers creates a space for its questions about power, sexuality, and white American youth culture, alternating between exhilarating debauchery and meditation. Spring break forever, y’all.

1 thought on “Anniversary Retrospective: In Defense of Harmony Korine’s ‘Spring Breakers’”

  1. This is such an interesting read and is incredibly well-written. It’s been a long while since I saw Spring Breakers, but I think I might re-visit it again soon!


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