Harmony Korine's first film, 1995's Kids, (he wrote the script at age of 19, and it was directed by photographer Larry Clark) has a famous review blurb from the New York Times plastered on all its posters, and home videos proclaiming that the film is "a wake up call to the world!" Each film post-Kids that Korine has himself written and directed, however, feel like feature-length articles from Vice magazine. Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice, has mocked old school journalism by stating, "baby boomer media like the New York Times is a laughingstock, and we should do whatever we can to ridicule it"; Korine says that he doesn't want to make "perfect sense" but to make "perfect nonsense" because "after 100 years, films should be getting really complicated. The novel has been reborn about 400 times, but it's like cinema is stuck in the birth canal."
I bring up these two entities because, to me, Korine's films have all felt like a feature length filmed version of an article in Vice: Gummo being a photo spread of beautifully composed images of poverty and odd characters in a small, boring town, left behind in middle America; Julien Donkey-Boy covers mental illness via immersion; Mister Lonely follows not just societal cast-offs, but celebrity impersonator societal cast-offs who, even when on an island all to themselves, want to be known not as themselves but as their characters; for Trash Humpers he dresses exhibitionists in obvious old people masks so that he can film their southern sexual proclivities via 8th generation VHS tapes like some lost document. And, of course, Korine himself has made shorts for Vice's video channel and Vice is doing massive PR services for Spring Breakers and it make sense: whereas Korine's other films felt like sections of a magazine article or photo spread, Spring Breakers feels like an entire issue of Vice, cover to cover (sex objects, gangsters, sex-starved young girls, the profitability of illegal activity, the ATL Twins and a character seemingly a riff on Riff Raff). How you feel flipping through said publication and the glorification of proclaimed "outlaws" will probably indicate how you'd feel about Spring Breakers.
Myself, I am conflicted about Vice and I am conflicted about Spring Breakers. For every photo issue, prose issue or well-researched, well-documented article about mental illness, modern reports on Native American or Iraqi cultures, there's an apology from the editorial staff for changing a freelance article from a female journalist where the publication makes it appear like their writer slept with a member of the band, there's a "Guide to Shagging Muslim Women," and music reviews written as jokes with made up names and either a smiley face or vomit face to let you know how they feel about it.
Whereas both have some content that I do like, Vice and Spring Breakers make me feel more conservative. Korine and Vice probably like that they have that effect on people. To me, having a band of teenage stars famous for their clean images rob people, hold guns in bikinis, do cocaine, have a threesome in a pool isn't subversive - it's not like I've seen anything they've been in before - the girls are just props and have no identity; they exist as a group because of who they are in real life (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) and this is their Terry Richardson shoot: crotch shots, sexualized childish acts (hand-stands, giggles, sucking on a popsicle, etc -- Terry Richardson link is NSFW).
I've never had an interest in spending any amount of time in large crowds of well-cut young people converging on a beach to celebrate that they're beautiful and can drink to excess. I'm not sure how you could get below the surface of a ritualistic party activity that seems to only exist on the surface: being watched, being desired and yet being detached from those things at the same time through drugs and alcohol. There are a lot of these scenes in Spring Breakers that feel cheap just because the activity is cheap, and repetitive.
The four young femme co-eds, listed above, decide to rob a fast food chicken restaurant so that they can go to St. Petersburg for spring break. Our four girls keep telling us (via phone calls to their mother, or grandmother) that they're having the time of their lives, discovering themselves and having so much fun in St. Pete's. Against the storytelling wisdom of "show don't tell," Korine shows us images that don't match with what he's telling us and it feels too much like that's the joke, no punchline, just that it's opposite. I was bound to be annoyed by the spring break section, because that whole conceit is annoying to me and does not feel like there is anyone to add extra insight to it -- there's too much shouting for shouts sake. I guess there's a subversive quality by placing Disney approved young women into the bikinis but only because I've been told as such.
However, Spring Breakers has certain scenes that could stand to be my favorites of the year, simply for style, execution, and one narrative conceit to tie it all together.
Gomez plays the good girl of the quartet: she's Christian, she's tired of the small town they live in, she's a moral compass, but doesn't judge or preach to her friends. Before the three inclined-to-be bad girls (Hudgens, Benson, Rachel Korine) rob the chicken shack they rev each other up by saying, "pretend it's a video game, act like you're in a movie." The first showing of the robbery is a gorgeous exterior tracking shot: as Rachel Korine drops them in the front of the shop and slowly drives to the backdoor we follow Hudgens and Benson through the exterior windows antagonizing the customers. The trio tell Gomez that they funded the trip via robbing the restaurant with water pistols and she is ok with the idea. But, when they re-enact it for Gomez, while bragging in a parking lot we see the reality of the scene: the abusive threats (learned and acted like from a movie), the hammer used as a violent instrument to decoy from the fake guns, and Gomez is mortified. She takes a bus back to her town soon after being arrested at a party, as she's seeing reality, whereas the rest are just seeing a game.
There is one more robbery scene at the end of the film and it is an amazing feat. The shots look and behave just like a video game: the perfect neon hues of the girls' masks and bikinis make the compound they're entering look like an old-school video game with characters surrounded by black negative space (Spring Breakers was shot by Benoît Debie, who after this film, and Enter the Void, is certainly an expert on capturing neon).
Outside of Gomez, James Franco is the only other actor who gets a character (although they are both fleshed out via iconography: Gomez as the Christian, Franco as the self-proclaimed gangster). Alien, the gangster/rapper/crime entrepreneur who bails the girls out of jail, has a former childhood friend turned turf nemesis (played by rapper Gucci Mane), sports a grill that makes his drawl more apparent, and has an artillery shed for a bedroom. Franco clearly relishes this role and has some good moments proclaiming his local rock star status.
Alien appears after spring break is over. If I had also joined the film skipping through the hollow and tired spring break travelogue, I would have probably liked it a lot more than I did (I am mixed, I certainly praise sections of it, and find other portions tiring). Like flipping through Vice magazine, for Spring Breakers, I wish I could've gone straight to the photographs and articles that were most appealing to me, while skipping over the American Apparel ads and articles on bukkake. There are some moments in Spring Breakers that actually do push Korine forward, but like the people who flock to Florida this time of year, none of them are during spring break -- but it does get him into mall theaters, and that is really how it is subversive.