Jonathan Romney on Spring Breakers: The ultimate spoof – unless it's for real ...

They say that all a movie needs is 'a girl and a gun'. So Harmony Korine must be having a laugh

Aged 19, Harmony Korine won instant notoriety as the writer of Larry Clark's Kids, purportedly the inside dope on sex among American youth. Now 40, and with four features behind him as director, Korine returns to teenage wildlife – but, this time, with something more like the eye of a lecherous uncle.

All you need to make a movie, goes the old saw, is a girl and a gun – but you can maximise your revenue by making that four girls in swimwear and an arsenal of guns, and throwing in a score featuring US noise-dance maven Skrillex. All that, plus heroines in Day-Glo itsy-bitsy-teeny-weenies including former Disney starlets Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez (here anything but virginal) and you can't help wondering whether Korine has sold out, or simply has a hyper-canny grasp of market imperatives.

Hudgens, Gomez, Ashley Benson and the director's wife, Rachel Korine, play four college girls who can't wait to head to Florida for spring break. So, after raising funds via robbery, the quartet head south and carouse like there's no tomorrow in a bout of hedonism fuelled by sex, booze and poolside hip-hop that's amply documented on MTV, and even less reputably by the porn franchise "Girls Gone Wild".

Talk about heightened sensation. Cameraman Benoît Debie (known for his work with Gaspar Noé) shoots the partying in hyper-vivid shades of candy, flesh and neon, diving into the thick of beach bashes and foam parties where beer gushes over breasts in eye-popping close-up. Orgiastic dumbness, perhaps – or, according to Faith (Gomez), ostensibly the good girl of the quartet, the most spiritual experience she's known.

The girls end up hanging out with white gangsta-rapper Alien – James Franco with Snoop Dogg braids and a mouthful of metal. More childlike than menacing, and played by Franco with crazed dorkish glee, Alien takes the girls to his opulent HQ and, in the film's most overtly satirical moment, shows off his bling: "I got shorts every fuckin' colour, I got Scarface on repeat, I got Calvin Klein Escape!"

But how satirical is the film? Does Korine disapprove of these kids' lifestyle? Not exactly: he's fascinated by the rampant transparency of the culture, with its worship of booze, noise, hormones and $$$$. Spring Breakers is in love with the scene it observes – a scene all the more vibrant (the film proposes) because of its vacancy and self-enclosed detachment from any adult values or concerns. Korine builds his critique, if that's what it is, not from standing outside the culture, but from immersing us in it.

Korine wants to provide a full-on thrill – which means teen exploitation in the blatantly leering tradition of Sixties beach movies. His camera obsessively, overtly slavers over his actresses' physiques, bobbing around thighs and bums underwater or staging riots of flailing legs.

Yes, Korine totally objectifies his heroines, who aren't drawn as much more than cartoons – although in the acting stakes, Hudgens distinguishes herself for spikiness and Gomez for quite considerable poignancy, as the church-going girl out of her depth. Yet, because the quartet and their appetites give the drama its motivating force, they are as much subjects as sex objects: you feel that Spring Breakers addresses anarchically inclined girls more directly than it does the boys who lust after them.

But anyone expecting disposable thrills may be chastened by the film's art-house aspects, as an increasingly desolate tone sets in. Editor Douglas Crise shapes a hallucinatory, timeless flow, with events oddly fractured and repetitive, dialogue circling on itself, and the phrase "Spring break forever …" becoming a hollow, hypnotic mantra.

With its brazen market-friendliness, the film's commerciality is, you could say, its primary subject – some might argue its only one. But Spring Breakers has another, troubling theme: the way that mainstream commerce has appropriated a hugely profitable fantasy version of black culture as a vacation lifestyle option. Black-acting Alien might be the criminal sex god that spring-break culture loves, but it's when actual black gangstas show up that Faith complains this wasn't what she signed up for. And it's the film's marginal black characters who ultimately pay the bill for the white girls' partying.

Trashy as it is (or feigns to be), this vivid, provocative film has already sparked much incisive critical discussion. No one can quite agree, though, whether the film itself is incisive, dumbly celebratory, or just opportunistic. But American art about pop culture tends to be elusive in this way, adopting and amplifying available imagery and asking us to make up our own minds about what it means: Spring Breakers is as close to Bret Easton Ellis and Roy Lichtenstein as it is to Russ Meyer. It is truly conceptual trash cinema – the beer-and-tits movie as pop-art object.


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