Spring Breakers is a movie that makes it hard for me to divorce my distaste for the subject matter from the film itself. The ritual of party excess that makes up spring break and the college lifestyle has never appealed to me, and by necessity the film is something that absolutely revels in it. Opening with and repeatedly returning to montages of slow motion debauchery, the movie is undoubtedly aiming to draw in the party crowd that revels in much of the same.
Fine. Whatever. While at a base level I can enjoy the voyeuristic appeal of it, it’s not enough to sustain an entire plot. Enter the main characters, a group of college girls looking to get away from the mundane reality of university and escape to color and life of spring break. Selena Gomez plays a Faith, who, if her name hasn’t tipped you off, is “the good girl”, heavyhandedly shown by her attendance at prayer group and the cross she carries around. Her casting her feels sadly predictable. While she doesn’t seem to be fit for any of the roles of the other girls, the role does little to help her break away from the good girl teen star persona that she inevitably built with her previous roles, particularly the Disney channel ones.
Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine play the rest of the girls, each an interchangeable party girl with a loose sense of morality. These characters are equally as telegraphed, with nearly every shot of them having them engaged in some form of debauchery, and Faith’s peers from the prayer group making ugly comments about them. Nevertheless, Faith is old friends with them, and is heart set on breaking out of the monotony of her life and seeing something different. When they find that they don’t have nearly enough money to make the trip, the three girls put on their “bad bitch” personas and independent of Faith rob a diner with realistic squirt guns to get the money.
Things go south when they reach Florida, and not only in terms of location. After an initial wave of partying and bonding, the girls find themselves in jail and subsequently get bailed out by “Alien”, a local gangster and amateur rapper, played convincingly by James Franco, who then ropes them into the criminal underworld.
Franco’s portrayal of Alien is problematic, as while he convincingly steps into the role of Alien, the character himself isn’t that likeable. Alien comes from a rough background and as he explains it, “your typical story,” and that’s the character in a nutshell. While he later shows off his human side in his own way, Alien is a person obsessed with the gangster lifestyle to the point of becoming a caricature of it. Drugs, money, girls, and guns all present. His speech is also perfectly over the top, with some verses thrown in for his poignant moments which provide a facsimile of the empty lyrical style that gangsta rappers, especially amateur ones, put out.
The criminal underworld itself gives the movie a feeling that brings to mind the atmosphere of Drive, which is further accentuated by the similar Florida location, neon night life, and soundtrack provided in part by Cliff Martinez, who also contributed to Drive. This time however, the underworld is visualized not through a mafia lens, but one of gangsta culture, its worship of excess crossing over naturally with that of spring break. Like Drive, Spring Breakers uses this push into underworld territory to not only raise the stakes but to also push the characters to a state where they must confront their flaws and inner desires. Faith is predictably the first to go, unsettled by the affections of Alien and his foreign world, which leaves a significant part of the movie to focus on the exploits of Alien and the rest of the girls. The further escalation causes one of the other girls to leave as well, while the other two become further absorbed into their bad girl personas.
Like the girls themselves, the film seems to be caught up in a desire to capture and freeze the spring break moments forever. While the repetition of various visuals and sounds provides a contrast between different points in their trip, eventually it begins to wear thin. Constantly flashing back to drug and alcohol hazed party scenes and Alien’s wistful chant of “Spring break. Spring break forever,” this desire becomes almost obsessive and ultimately causes both the characters and the film itself to break down.
Too much time is spent obsessing over the haze of debauchery that it becomes dead space in the movie, empty time in between moments where the plot final begins to move forward. It’s a shame, because underneath the initially shallow premise there are glimpses of what the movie could have become, if only the heavyhanded treatment of the themes and lurid obsession with the subject matter had been dialed back a bit and focused. Spring Breakers brings such a strong visual and aural treatment to what is essentially an empty story.