TIFF ’12 Review: Fun in the Sun Until it Burns in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers”

Though it may be the point, the gluttony of a spring break gone wrong bleeds into the "Trash Humpers" depiction of it, proving sometimes there can be too much...
Rachel Korine, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, James Franco and Vanessa Hudgens in Harmony Korine's film "Spring Breakers"

I shouldn’t ever believe something to be definitive, but I never thought I’d see something more bizarre or perverse at the Toronto Film Festival (*other than in the Midnight Madness section) than Nicolas Cage simultaneously doing blow, holding a gun to another man’s head while having sex with his girlfriend in public in Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” That all changed Sunday when I sat down to see Herzog’s disciple Harmony Korine’s much-anticipated “Spring Breakers,” in which James Franco, decked out in cornrows and a gold-plated grill, fellates a silencer held by a bikini-clad Ashley Benson (of “Pretty Little Liars” fame) with Vanessa Hudgens by her side.

It would make for compelling copy to list all the other jaw dropping moments in “Spring Breakers,” but just as that wouldn’t really qualify as a review, I’m not entirely sure “Spring Breakers” qualifies as a film. It’s a brilliant clusterfuck of pop culture, one I could hardly believe was happening as I watched Selena Gomez writhe to the right of fellow Disney prodigy Hudgens snorting a line of coke, but would’ve been just as enjoyable had it been boiled down to a 30-minute sizzle reel, minus the redundant scenes of anonymous revelers and the languid imagery of Gomez’s appropriately named Faith and gal pals Candy (Hudgens), Brit (Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) doing handstands, hanging out in hallways bathed in red and taking bong hits.

As with most spring break stories, it’s all a blast at first, when Gomez’s appropriately named Faith ditches her church group to find salvation in South Beach, a trip financed by an armed robbery of the local Chicken Shack by her three friends. Faith begins to notice the more violent tendencies of her college chums, but it isn’t until the quartet is bailed out of jail for a party gone awry that she takes a hint – and a bus home – after insisting that she’s stumbled upon paradise on the debauched shoreline. That leaves Candy, Brit, and Cotty in the care of Alien, Franco’s weed impresario who ushers the young women from a potential prison stretch into his Chevy Camaro, never looking back. What begins as a quasi-investigation of the spiritual sustenance of spring break is then torn apart to a single thread for Alien to get his vengeance on a former friend now foe (Gucci Mane) while Candy, Brit and Cotty pull down their pink ski masks to help the cause.

There’s always the implication there’s something more here, but other than pulling the ultimate prank on a generation of tweens who Gomez has already warned not to see the film, Korine only occasionally achieves the hypnotic state the film seems to be going for. Amidst the atmospheric score from “Drive” composer Cliff Martinez and Skrillex, Alien can be heard throughout the film in a gravelly voiceover, chanting a foreboding “Spring break, y’all” and the lighting scheme of the film in which the screen is often flooded with fluorescent colors, all of which can be transfixing and surely will make for a wonderful viewing experience at home for those who share the girls’ love of marijuana. Yet just as the overindulgence eventually catches up with the girls, the cumulative effect of seeing bad behavior repeated time and time again diminishes its power.

Is this to say “Spring Breakers” isn’t a must see? Hardly. However, as transgressive as is, it never quite makes the leap to becoming transcendent of the pop culture it seeks to detonate, instead inevitably destined to become one of its most treasured relics with lines such as Alien’s boast of “Look at my shit” bound to reverberate for years to come.

“Spring Breakers” was acquired for U.S. distribution by Annapurna Pictures. It will show at the Toronto Film Festival once more on September 14th at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

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