Harmony Korine is among our most enigmatic and polarizing filmmakers. His cinematic style is one of neo-realist nuance, bordering on a voyeuristic experience masquerading as an exposé, and his form of cinematic storytelling has been situated between impressionistic sociological documentary and emblematically American neo-realism. Throughout his filmography, Korine’s documentary-like technique and realist aesthetic have captured a blank actuality, employing a style that seems to favor sociology over poetics. But perhaps the strongest and most obvious reason we might categorize Korine’s style as realist lies in his narratives’ resistance to Hollywood storyline, becoming profoundly unintegrated and presenting an assemblage of evidence rather than telling a direct story. Only by dissolving the standard and highly artificial linear storyline with its conventional expectations and typical goal-oriented characters can Korine get to what is real.
As a confirmed realist, Korine eschews narrative drama in favor of subject matter. Without the typical narrative that bears witness to some repressed antagonism, Korine’s films offer a reality stripped of the Hollywood life force. However, with Spring Breakers (2013), Korine, for the first time, injects his film with the very fantasy coating that he had always resisted in the past. Here, Korine diverts his attention away from a strictly outward reality and closer to something akin to an inner reality—something like a dream. Korine’s films before were presented as drab realistic depictions that lacked a fantasy coating, as realistic depictions of the everyday reality of social pathologies, lacking the slick artificial veneer to which Hollywood productions are prone. Spring Breakers, on the other hand, appears to go to the opposite extreme, appearing as a candy-coated dreamscape transcending the probability of even the most extreme mainstream cinematic productions.
Spring Breakers, on the surface, is quite a departure from the more controversial and experimental work in Korine’s past (although Spring Breakers was certainly no stranger to controversy). It marks Korine’s first time using A-list stars. There was a lot of buzz over the casting of the spring breaker girls; Korine chose actresses whose public personas were sure to create a bunch of cognitive dissonance. It was marketed to the late-teen, young adult demographic, with its imagery of bright, colorful beach parties set to popular EDM music sure to draw huge crowds. It released during my freshman year of high school with an allure which made it feel like a fun taboo picture, a secret which I had to divine. I can still recall my friends and I sneaking into the movie excited to see how drastic a turn our beloved Disney stars had taken. As a group of fourteen-year-olds believing we had snuck into a raunchy R-rated party flick, we were all vastly disappointed to instead find a viscerally meditative arthouse film criticizing the exact kind of shlock which we came to see.
Spring Breakers straddles the growing intellectual divide in our modern cinema, creating something at once vibrant and smart, a societal critique that allows us to slightly revel in that which it is critiquing. The film meanders with minimal dialogue, placing little importance on actual plot. Yet, it’s the closest thing to conventional in Korine’s filmography to date. Spring Breakers is a relentless and visceral assault on both the senses of the viewers and the ideals and dreams of the exact audience the film was marketed to. Its opening scene alludes to that of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), using slow-motion photography set to a Skrillex song to exaggerate the sexual undertones of a spring break beach party, a place where the id is allowed to run free.
Men grab at their crotches; women dance with their tops off; beer is guzzled by the gallon. Everyone holds their middle fingers in the air. For many people, this opening scene establishes the main theme behind Spring Breakers, claiming it to be a satire of what has become recognized as “spring break culture,” with the carefree, happy attitude masking narcissism, gluttony, and repugnant behavior. The film instantly desensitizes the viewers to the events that will occur right from the get go. A constant barrage of T&A leaves the viewer numb to the reality of the situation, much like the characters in the film. It doesn’t make you want to be there; their dancing seems one step removed from the writhing of the damned. But this is America, Korine says: hedonistic pleasure seekers who ignore anything of value while salivating over the most banal physical commodities. However, to reduce the entire film to a satire is to ignore a great deal of the film’s subtext.
While Spring Breakers goes above and beyond to critique and interrogate the current status of fun-loving youth culture, it also serves to celebrate those same desires inherent in the culture. The deluge of debauchery definitely has its detrimental consequences. Yet, for these girls, spring break was still a liberating experience rather than a negative one. In the beginning, they’re horrified by their middle-class existence, by the routine of their classes, by the mundanity of life. They’re empty hollow people part of an empty hollow generation. At one point, Faith (Selena Gomez) expresses, “I don’t want to end up like [the other kids]. I really want to get out of here. This is more than spring break. This is our chance to see something different.” She later confesses to her friends that she “can be who [she]was supposed to be here.”