Harmony Korine’s 2012 film, Spring Breakers, has more or less locked up a spot as one of the best films of the 2010s. It appeared on most top ten lists the year it was released, and has appeared on nearly every critical “best of the decade (so far)” list I have seen. Using a Terrence Malick-esque style of cutting with an eye on visual association rather than linearity and often layering voiceover as a connective tissue for the images, Korine replaces Malick’s introspective philosophical aesthetics with more transparently hedonistic ones. But Korine also infuses the film with something else that Malick tends to avoid: race and class critique. While it seems obvious in hindsight, it took me four viewings of Spring Breakers to recognize that a story about four young college women robbing a diner to pay their way to spring break is actually a movie about the way that privileged middle class cultural appropriation through capitalism is a seemingly inescapable terror destroying humanity. Okay, that’s hyperbolic, but maybe it also isn’t?
In the film’s opening scenes we see Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Brit (Ashley Benson) attending a class at their university. Rather than listening to the lecture Brit and Candy trade lewd notes and drawings, culminating with Candy drawing a phallus that says “Spring Break Bitch” on it and pantomimes sucking it and then mimes a gun to her head and rolls her eyes. They’re bored. There’s an obvious surface-level critique here: college has nothing to do with learning or knowledge to enrich your life, they see life enrichment through partying, through alcohol and drugs and loud music and sexualized imagery. College is for living your life as if you’re on MTV and the classes are just the tedious framework you have to put up with in-between debauchery. But there’s more to the scene, as Korine cleverly makes the audience struggle to distance themselves from the characters. There is a professor giving a lecture. His audio is mixed quietly, so that you have to strain slightly to hear. But if you listen to what he says it provides a clear line to the movie. He’s talking about the Second Reconstruction, about Jim Crow, about the “constant struggle of African-Americans in the South to claim their liberty.” Spring Breakers, of course, takes place in Florida -- that strange part of the South that rarely comes to mind when Northerners think of the South. The women are not only indifferent to knowledge generally, but indifferent to the notion of history, and to the struggles of people who are not like them.
Throughout the film Korine cuts back to a scene that takes place outside the narrative of the film -- a hyper-saturated party at the beach full of drinking, nudity, in your face vulgarity. This scene functions as The Fantasy. When the main characters imagine spring break, this is the picture they see in their heads. This is the goal they strive for. After the robbery, when all four women -- Faith (Selena Gomez) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) joining the aforementioned Brit and Candy -- arrive in St. Petersburg, the fantasy and reality begin to mesh. The beach scene is freely intercut with actual scenes of the women partying. They have reached their platonic ideal. In a scene with the four of them in the pool Faith (whose name is no accident; she’s the only character with any religious affiliation) likens spring break to heaven and declares that they should never go back. But then, at a house party, reality arrives. Police charge into the house and the four women are arrested. Korine shifts the color palette here, from the garish fantasy of the previous scenes to a colder, greener, more metallic feel. There’s something detached and pathetic about seeing the women sitting in a jail cell in their bathing suits.
Alien (James Franco), a rapper and criminal, bails them out of jail. At this point in the film reality begins to overwhelm the fantasy. After bailing them out Alien tells the women his story, of growing up in poverty, of hustling for money, of building his drug empire. But hidden in the story is a kernel of trauma that Franco throws away. His dad disappeared. His mother was a drug addict. All of his siblings were murdered. He downplays its significance, casually throwing off his suffering, “You know, same old sob story,” as he moves on to more explanations of his exploits. While Candy, Cotty, and Brit marvel at his macho posturing and tales of criminal capitalism Faith begins to shy away. This isn’t the spring break she envisioned. Violence, unwelcome sexual advances, and the realities of race in America aren’t what she had in mind for her heaven. Alien hones in on her, making sexual insinuations. It comes to a head when Alien brings them to a pool hall in a “bad” part of town. The hall is full of black men, the detail that ends it for Faith. Where previous parties were a mixture of middle-class people -- men, women, an assortment of races although mostly white -- the clearly delineated demographic of black men triggers fear and malice for Faith. “I don’t like it here, these people, this isn’t what we came here for. I wanna go home.” Gomez’s body language contrasts with the other three women. She wraps her arms protectively around her bare midriff and stares at the floor as Hudgens, Benson, and Korine make flirtatious eye contact with the men and revel in the gritty “reality.” Faith leaves, riding the bus back to the university alone. She looks out the window, forlorn. The fantasy is gone.
At this point the film begins to reveal the circularity of capitalism in the 21st century, its nonsensical paradox. Rap culture grew out of extreme poverty; flamboyant excesses of capital as a symbol of escape, of not only surviving but dominating a system that was designed to destroy you. Archie (played by real-life rapper/criminal, Gucci Mane) represents this early iteration. He was Alien’s surrogate father, the man who taught him everything he knew about being a criminal. While Alien is white and Archie is black they share the common thread of poverty. Their lack of money brought them together. But Alien, with his cornrows, platinum grill, and posturing, has appropriated all the trappings of rap culture but bears no responsibility for the legacy of whiteness and blackness in the United States. His poverty was real, but he refuses the idea that white poverty and black poverty are not the same. Archie and Alien were once like family, but are now enemies. In order for Alien to complete his appropriation he must destroy Archie. There’s no such thing as symbiosis in their world. The film doesn’t make this explicit, leaving only a few lines from Gucci Mane about Alien encroaching on his territory, but the subtext is clear.
The women in the film piggyback on Alien’s appropriation, but take it one step further by removing the element of poverty from the equation. They love the criminality, the violence, the fetishization of money and status, but with none of the desperation for escape that poverty brings. Their desperation for escape is simply from tedium, from a life of sitting in expensive classrooms and listening to people tell them ideas they don’t care about. As the film’s finale approaches Cotty also backs out. In a scuffle between Archie and Alien she is shot in the arm. So far she hasn’t minded enacting violence (though not with the same zeal that Candy and Brit approach it), but the reality sinks in when she sees her own potential mortality. Like Faith she leaves, alone, on the bus, crossing the bridge from St. Petersburg back into an unwelcome reality.
Candy and Brit remain undeterred. In the scenes before they attack Archie’s home, Candy and Brit point out Alien’s fear. Franco plays the character perfectly here, revealing brief glimpses of uncertainty in his eyes underneath the macho posturing. The difference between the women and Alien is reality. He grew up in this world, saw it destroy his family, knows, for all his hubris, that actions can have consequences. Candy and Brit’s poverty tourism deliberately alienates these truths. Through their middle class privilege they have no fear, because the consequences of history have left them untouched. Their appropriation knows no boundaries, because it has no attachment to reality. When the climactic fight begins Alien is killed immediately. As with Faith and Cotty, one cannot flinch. To flinch is to admit greyness into a situation that demands black and white. Early in the film Candy and Brit justify their violent robbery by saying that they deserve to go on spring break. In their minds they have worked hard, they have suffered the indignity and tedium of classrooms, they have put in the time. They deserve to get what they want. This sense of entitlement never ends, and because they are unmoored from the truths of their surroundings they do get everything they want. They kill Archie and the final shots of the film are the two driving back towards their university, back towards their real life, in a stolen Lamborghini. To underscore the point Korine shows them driving across the same bridge Faith and Cotty passed over, lonesome and on a bus. Candy and Brit leave St. Petersburg victorious.