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Bikini-clad bodies, beautiful beaches, bacchanalian vibes: before Fyre Festival infamously promised all of the above, Spring Breakers got there first. Following four childhood friends (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine and Selena Gomez) letting loose over the real-life vacation period, Harmony Korine’s 2013 film also packaged its hedonistic fantasy with a thumping soundtrack, a dreamlike air and coveted famous faces, elements that its failed successor desperately wished it could’ve delivered beyond its advertising campaign. A fictionalised foray into the school and college calendar mainstay, Spring Breakers would’ve been eerily prophetic if it wasn’t simply a portrait of attitudes that aren’t really a-changing and show no sign of doing so in the foreseeable future. The world of today might be somewhat different to the world of six years ago, but the movie’s brilliant, blistering exploration of unchecked excess still rings as true.
The idea of escaping to scenic coastal surroundings, sashaying through the hedonistic shindig to end all hedonistic shindigs and leaving forever changed was hardly invented by Spring Breakers or the event it nods to, or by the widely-documented music festival that didn’t quite spring up in the neon-hued feature’s wake. But both sell the same age-old yet thoroughly modern tale. While glossy debauchery shines oh-so-brightly, beneath the twinkling facade lurks hollow dreams. Spring Breakers doesn’t pretend otherwise, however. Turning the annual rite-of-passage into an ethereal collage that’s as intoxicating as any downed shot, chugged beer or otherwise imbibed substance, Korine corrupts the partying idyll not just by turning its revelers into gun-toting gangsters, but by showing what an endless spring break means.
In the process, he pushes bored college girls to their limits. They don’t require much nudging. The man who lucked into meeting Larry Clark in a skate park at the age of 18, then wrote a screenplay about his own generation for the director, once again casts his eye over tomorrow’s future — but instead of '90s teens facing AIDS and death, as seen in Kids, Spring Breakers depicts early 00s co-eds facing the fact that life isn’t wall-to-wall excitement. That’s the version of the American dream that Candy (Hudgens), Brit (Benson), Cotty (Korine) and Faith (Gomez) are initially chasing. Success to them, and to the rapper-slash-drugs and arms dealer Alien (James Franco) they’re soon palling around with, doesn’t stem from hard work or result in a cozy existence. It’s the spoils they’re after, grabbed quickly and easily; forget the thrill of the chase, they’re just in it for the thrills.
Or, as Alien so bluntly puts it, they’re in it for “the shit”. As he implores and Korine indulges, everyone should just look. The character’s bragging monologue, so convincingly spat out by a cornrow-wearing Franco, ranks among Spring Breakers’ most honest and telling moments. Alien has shorts in every colour, he boasts. Gold bullets (look out, vampires), too, and Scarface playing on repeat. He has the drugs, guns and Florida gangster life that his favorite film celebrates, just in St. Petersburg rather than Miami. He did what he needed to get it all, and he’ll do what needs to be done to keep it. Before they even hear his creed, let alone meet him, Candy, Brit and company are following in his footsteps.
It’s not by accident that Korine starts Spring Breakers with bumping, grinding, jiggling breasts and swilled beer bongs, all slowed down to a grotesque degree. Or that his photogenic central quartet can’t join the revelry until they’ve already broken the law by sticking up the local chicken shack. Or that they egg themselves on by comparing their heist to video games and movies — or that their hold-up exploits are shot smoothly from outside the store’s windows, creating a screen within a screen. As the willing Candy and Brit do during their robbery, the filmmaker wields a sledgehammer, directing it towards the notion that all that glitters is gold. His characters use the weapon, plus squirt guns, to rustle up the cash they need for their trip. Korine uses it not to strike at their choices, but to hammer home just how struggling a society has to be to make their path so alluring.
Make no mistake, Spring Breakers is beguiling and entrancing — in every stylized image that’s lensed to perfection by Benoît Debie, in every color choice that pops off the screen, in every note of Cliff Martinez’s synth score mixed with Skrillex’s heavy drops, and in every frenetic cut by editor Douglas Crise. Every frame glows with the same seductiveness that’s cast a thrall over Candy, Brit, Cotty and Faith, with Korine baking their hope and exuberance into every glistening aesthetic flourish. But as Faith’s waning enthusiasm begins to reveal, it’s a case of soaking in the splendor to reveal its emptiness. Even the most gorgeous image on a postcard only exists in two dimensions, and this gang of girls has merely stepped into a pretty but flimsy picture. They paid a price to get there and, from leering men to stark jail stints to bloody shoot-ups, they only fall deeper into the rough flipside of their fantasy.
It’s a savvy and savage take. When the film first hit cinemas, Korine shied away from pairing Spring Breakers with a clear-cut statement, but the movie says plenty. As the young women find their breaking points one by one, Spring Breakers contrasts what they proclaim to hold dear when they’re being scrutinized — as heard in snippets of telephone calls to parents and grandparents back home — with just how far they’re willing to deviate from those highly sanitized ideals. Again, Korine isn’t judging them, but casting an eye over the world they live in. It’s purposefully outlandish to see girls in swimwear huddled together in handcuffs next to a police car. It’s similarly over-the-top to spy them dancing while brandishing guns and wearing pink balaclavas, all as Alien croons Britney Spears’ "Everytime". Still, it’s a version of normality they’re willing to accept, up until a point, so that they can chase their dream.
Watching the film today, it’s easy to view its array of indulgence with the benefit of hindsight, and to see world events since its release with Korine’s lurid lens — not just Fyre Festival, but the current political reality. Dressed up in fluorescent montages, set to an echoing soundtrack and starring former Disney idols, it’s Spring Breakers’ bleak overarching perspective that makes the firmest impact. Korine takes audiences into a world where pleasure and power reign supreme for their own sake rather than for any lofty rationale, and posits that that’s the genuine status quo. That’s today’s American dream. There’s a cost, of course, and some eventually see through the luster. And yet the beat and the gleam — and the parties, booze, sea of flesh, carefree attitude and descent into darker, grimmer territory — will always continue, just like the movie’s repeated line of dialogue: “spring break forever”.