“Spring Breakers” may not have “trash” in the title, but that’s what it is

Dec 16, 2020 | Matthewrozsa

Three years before Harmony Korine released “Spring Breakers,” he made a microbudget social horror film called “Trash Humpers.” That movie, despite having the word “trash” in its title, is actually pretty good. By contrast “Spring Breakers,” despite having the refreshing word “Spring” in its title, is pretty trashy.

Anyone familiar with the Korine oeuvre will know going into “Spring Breakers” that we aren’t going to get a traditional linear narrative. The “story” here, to the extent that it can be called that, is about four college students (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) going to Florida during spring break so they can party. Their bacchanalian revelry soon leads to them to violent crime, although since the characters are never held legally or morally accountable for their actions, this devolution seems less like a plot development than a series of shocking-for-their-own-sake set pieces.

I realize that my previous sentence may have contained “spoilers,” but (a) they’re nothing you wouldn’t have gleaned from watching a trailer and (b) the consequence-free nature of the titular spring breakers actions is crucial to understanding this film’s core problem. It is a slice of life with no life in it, an attempt to create a distinctive world with no sense of that world’s narrative geography.

In his best movies, Korine explores the fringes of society and asks his audience to see the world as they do. In this one, he glorifies the hedonistic excesses of society’s most privileged members… and then gratifies himself over how sexy it is while the audience is forced to watch. He has no empathy for any of his characters, or any kind of commentary to offer by displaying their antisocial indulgences. It’s reality TV given the patina of respectability because it is made by a talented filmmaker.

Even worse, the movie is misogynistic. Like really, really misogynistic. I’m sure it’s defenders will say that it empowers its female protagonists, but they are so brazenly sexualized — and so willing to submit to one of the male characters (more on that in a moment) — that the film borders on soft core pornography. As one critic astutely wrote at the time, “It’s among the skeeviest films I’ve ever seen: The camera glides up, down and around these women’s bodies like a giant tongue.”

If there is one redeeming quality to this dreck, it’s James Franco’s performance as Alien, a successful rapper who takes the four female protagonists under his wing (ew!) and shows them what it would be like to adopt their debauchery as a lifestyle instead of a phase. This is the role that Franco was born to play (a double-edged compliment, given the Me Too accusations against Franco), and he completely owns it. Alien is the only character in “Spring Breakers” who feels like an actual human being; everyone else is just there to be ogled over or used for shocking imagery.

Korine is capable of better than this.