Spring Breakers – review

Director Harmony Korine may lech over Spring Breakers' bikini-clad heroines, but he's also on their side in his funniest and least irritating film yet

Spring break is getting to be like prom night or Thanksgiving: an alien American institution we've consumed so much in pop culture that it's almost as if we Brits have experienced it in our rainy Brit lives. Anyway, we're expected to be in on the cultural reference – in this case, lithe, young college kids partying super hard in sunny Florida during the March vacation.

The Glasgow comic Kevin Bridges famously took a stand against this Americanisation, dourly recalling watching high school movies with "spring break" scenes: "We didn't have 'spring break'; we had the Easter holidays." Like a Christmas movie in December, this film has actually been released at the correct seasonal time, although it means less in the shivering UK than in the US. James Franco's creepy gangsta character in this film is always intoning the words: "Spring Breeeeaaak …" in a state of bleary ecstasy, as if invoking, or desecrating, a quasi-religious icon.

Harmony Korine has given us a violent pulp true romance that could be renamed A Pre-Summer's Night's Wet Dream. Like the exploitation films by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, it's the kind of movie that looks as if it was created to fit the poster. The difference is that those films signalled that they were faux-trash. This is more like the real thing. Spring Breakers is Korine's most technically competent and fluent movie; probably his most commercial, his funniest, perhaps even his least irritating.

He creates four lissome heroines who appear in their bikinis pretty much all the time. Even in court. After a while, you have to wonder where the heck they are keeping their hotel-room keys, cash and phones etc. Korine became notorious with the script he wrote for Larry Clark's Kids in the 1990s and now, at 40, he has achieved … well, not maturity exactly, but a kind of seniority, bordering on the maestro-perviness of the great Clark himself.

The plot concerns college students who are bored with their course and their lives: they zone out and pass rude notes to each other during lectures on African-American experiences in the postwar US; this academic subject is a deadpan touch of insolence on Korine's part, considering the overtly racial aspect of what is finally to happen. These badass girls are Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty, played by the director's wife, Rachel Korine. From their kindergarten days, they are friendly with Faith (Selena Gomez), a modest Christian girl. Our heroines are desperate to go on spring break, but have no money – so with daring, masks and a fake gun, they knock over a fast-food restaurant and gloatingly exult in their cash ("It makes my tits look bigger!"). Taking Faith with them, they head for party central in the Sunshine State, falling there under the dangerous spell of the drug dealer, rapper and automatic-weapons-enthusiast Alien. He is played with tattoos, metal teeth and cornrows by Franco. Alien conceives a kind of passion for these women, like a non-pimp pimp who doesn't intend them to have sex with anyone but him. All too clearly, Korine is ventriloquising himself with this character.

Like that other spring-break classic, Piranha 3D, Spring Breakers is naturally an excuse to show lots of semi-naked women and men – but mostly women – with in-your-face/in-their-swimsuit-area shots. Alien is always gasping at how pretty his foursome are: giggling, they pose for the imaginary photo he frames with his fingers – and yet all the women and indeed men on camera are pretty. Korine is giving us a preselected, pre-auditioned representation of youth and beauty.

For all its absurdity and voyeurism, Korine brings to it a real authorial style. He shapes the pulp. He leches over the women, but he is also on their side. It is a world away from his (interesting) experimental piece Trash Humpers, and also, thankfully, from his excruciatingly annoying drama Mister Lonely. The colossal party scenes – in the pool, on the beach, in the hotel room, on the balcony – are coolly choreographed in montage, and the more desolate "reportage" shots outside all-night convenience stores look good. There is an undeniable directorial strut in Spring Breakers. Where, precisely, he is strutting to is another question.

As for Faith, the good girl, her role is unexpected. Much is made of her attendance in Christian prayer groups, which sometimes convene in front of a huge stained-glass window. Given Faith's background, I wondered if there would be some reference, ironic or otherwise, to Good Friday or Easter Sunday – the events that license the holiday. But no. I suspect the idea never occurred to Harmony Korine for a moment. It is an entirely pagan entertainment.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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