Mixed messages about exploiting girls

Spring Breakers (R). Director: Harmony Korine. Starring: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine.

The opening montage looks like the off-cuts from an R-rated cola commercial. Boozed up, barely-dressed teens bounce to dance beats on a beach flooded with preternaturally bright sunlight. The camera picks out the young women on the crowd, clad in bikinis (or portions thereof) amid groups of leering, grinning, buffed up boys.

The 'spring break' as mythologised over decades by countless American films and TV shows is a singularly debauched occasion (its closest equivalent in Australia might be Schoolies) that on one side of the coin represents youthful freedom and a ritualised purging of innocence on the path to adulthood, and on the other the corruption of youth and the objectification of impressionable young women.

Spring Breakers is largely concerned with deconstructing the latter. Its director Korine first made his name as the 22-year-old screenwriter of Larry Clark's cult 1995 film Kids, notable for its bleak consideration of youth culture and its shocking realism. Spring Breakers is bleak too, but instead of realism it adopts a heightened sense of unreality. It is a formally ambitious film that sends mixed messages, making it both intriguing and perplexing.

The disquieting images of that opening montage, which recur throughout the film, seem to represent a kind of idealised vision of the nature of spring break. Idealised by whom? In particular, by the film's four antiheroes — ringleaders Candy (Hutchens) and Brit (Benson), suggestible Cotty (played by the director's wife, Rachel Korine) and token 'good girl' Faith (Gomez) — young women and students who see the reckless decadence of spring break as the certain and only cure for their existential malaise. It must be attended at all costs.

They are short on cash but are so desperate to escape to the haven of spring break that they commit a violent crime in order to get there. This is one of a number of far-fetched conceits that would be harder to pull off in a more naturalistic film. As it is, the pervasive, almost impressionistic tone of Spring Breakers suggests that this is intended as a fable for reflection rather than a thriller for seedy titillation.

The girls seem to speak, and even think, in catchphrases. Their disquietingly hollow platitudes about escaping and breaking free, about the oppressiveness of home and the unending joy of sping break, are often repeated in different contexts and in different tones (from earnest to ebullient), in voiceover or in on-screen conversation.

It isn't hard to work out what is going on here. The girls are (and in some cases, remain throughout the film) emblematic, of the end product of a culture that has commodified young women completely. By the time they throw their lot in with a troubled white gangster rapper named Alien (a show-stealing Franco) who has got wealthy off deadly criminal activity, the depth of their amorality is well and truly ready to be tested.

All of this is compelling, but Spring Breakers does seem to be working at cross purposes. Its R rating covers a considerable amount of female nudity (most of which is contained in those beach montages), and the four leads spend most of the film dressed in scant bikinis. It is easy to see how this plays into Korine's point about objectification, but it is also inherently ironic that the actors are objectified to achieve this end. Especially since for the most part the characters are not in the least bit well-rounded. Even their names sound like labels.

Spring Breakers does threaten to go deeper in the case of Faith. In the early part of the film we see her participating in a campus Christian group. The day's sermon on resisting temptation seems like it will stand as a defining moral test for the character, who at this point appears to be the hero of the film.

In fact Faith fades into virtual homogony and eventually out of the film entirely without ever being troubled by her religious faith. True, of the four it is she who is most alert to the danger signs after they are befriended by Alien, but this is more a case of intuition and an instinctive fight-flight response than any particular moral fibre.

Women's and girls' rights advocate Melinda Tankard Reist has said that 'in a culture that rewards exhibitionism, your achievements count for nothing unless you're willing to get naked'. Korine has offered us a harrowing though imperfect vision of such a culture taken to its extreme. If the characters he presents us with are indeed the end result of such a culture then Tankard Reist's warning should not be taken lightly. 

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Spring Breakers, James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Melinda Tankard Reist



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