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The Bizarre Conservatism of Harmony Korine’s ‘Spring Breakers’

Harmony Korine is known as a provocateur. He is the filmmaker who shows us 13-year-old girls ceding their virginity to HIV-positive 16-year-old boys, and dreams up the most horrifying of elderly subcultures. And that is what we all expected out of his new film, sold as a nihilistic, neon-hued celebration of bad-ass teen girls wearing bikinis and wielding machine guns. Though it’s just as stuffed with sex, drugs, and firearms as the trailers promise, Spring Breakers doesn’t offer too much in the way of fun. It’s too busy moralizing.

The movie’s slight story entails three college girls (Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, and the director’s wife, Rachel Korine) who hold up a restaurant to pay for the Florida trip of their dreams — and take their wholesome, religious childhood friend, Faith (Selena Gomez), along for the road-trip. All four are inexplicably bored with campus life, and they see spring break — a phenomenon they’ve apparently spent their entire lives fantasizing about, thanks to MTV and pop music — as their one and only opportunity for self-actualization. Elizabeth Gilbert found herself by eating, praying, and loving; these girls hop a bus to the beach, hoping to drink, snort, and fuck their way to knowing who they really are.

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Each does, in turn, realize something about herself, but not until after they’re all thrown in jail and have to be bailed out by a rapper/drug dealer who calls himself Alien (James Franco, in what may be the only performance he’s actually shown up for since 127 Hours). It’s painful watching these girls — two of them former Disney stars! — pile into his car. And, in a sense, it’s to Korine’s credit that what happens next is even darker than you’d expect.

That’s when Korine’s subtle condemnation of 21st-century youth culture begins to infect such vicarious, hip-hop video thrills as strip clubs, sex in the pool, and brandishing guns in convertibles. Slowly, we become aware that the case Spring Breakers is really making, despite all the gawking at clothed and naked boobs and butts it does along the way, is that Kids These Days — brainwashed as they are by vapid American pop culture — are even more selfish and numb than the weapon-hoarding pusher who tries to take advantage of them. They’ve been hypnotized by the power-drilled dance beats of Skrillex (who contributed several songs to the soundtrack). Their MTV-shaped schemata for “spring break,” and their desire to do the kinds of things most rappers only brag about, are stronger than their connections to real people or instincts to take care of each other. The bond that two of them form with Alien seems due entirely to their shared cultural language of gangster movies and Britney Spears ballads. Before the diner robbery, one of the girls urges her friends, “Just fuckin’ pretend it’s a video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something.”

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Like Reefer Madness and its ilk, the movie exaggerates the current generation’s debauchery to have it both ways: to arouse as it alarms. Some have argued that Korine juggles these dual purposes without vilifying his heroines, and in a sense, that’s true; he doesn’t blame them, and thereby avoids supplementing the film’s relentlessly male-gaze-filtered aesthetic with straight-up misogyny. He seems to understand that Faith, Cotty, Candi, and Brit only want the things they want because the TV and radio have been indoctrinating them with violent, expensive, sexual desires since early childhood. This may strike some as powerful satire, but it’s also the kind of conservative logic that blames Marilyn Manson for Columbine.

A Franco quote in the film’s production notes is telling: “On one level the movie embraces pop culture and this very ‘poppy’ side of today’s youth. But it also reveals how deadening this can be — how much popular media can dull our humanity so that empathy for other people is nullified, and one’s actions almost don’t seem to have consequences.” Ambiguous as his aesthetics may be, Korine’s conclusion couldn’t be more transparent: Kids These Days are broken.

Of course, this isn’t the first time he’s built a film around a group of teenagers who are totally fucked. The difference is that Kids is propelled by a singularly sociopathic villain, and the societal scourge that underlies its plot isn’t pop culture — it’s AIDS. Legendarily written when Korine was only 18 and released when he was 22, it’s also a statement about his own generation. Although he may not realize it, Spring Breakers finds Korine, who turned 40 in January, interpreting a cohort he can only approach as an outsider. So, like so many aging cultural critics before him, he simply shakes his head, throws up his hands… and steals a few longing glances at those hot doomed girls’ naked bodies.