Excess All Areas: ‘Deflowering’ the Disney Girls in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

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Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Faith (Selena Gomez, from left to right) are caught in the act.

You can probably say an awful lot of things about Harmony Korine but not that the man has ever shied away from controversy. In fact, he seems to embrace it, at least occasionally. In 1996, the American filmmaker stormed the Hollywood landscape when he wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay for Larry Clark’s disturbing Kids. His own films from Gummo to Trash Humpers have followed a similar pattern. Since, Harmony Korine and his output have been open to dispute, and there are even voices that keep clamoring for his immediate retirement from the director’s chair. His latest work, Spring Breakers, continues the trend. Once again, opinions on the movie diverge, although the premise of the film is pretty intriguing.

Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are three freewheeling adventurous college girls. Together with her devout friend Faith (Selena Gomez), they plan to go to Florida for one hell of a long spring break weekend. When they don’t have enough funds, however, they disguise themselves and rob a diner. At first, their party trip appears to be a dream come true, but it doesn’t take long until things go sour and the whole adventure turns into a nightmare. The four girls are busted at a drug-infested fiesta – and the shady narcotics dealer Alien (James Franco) steps in to bail them out.

In a way, Harmony Korine’s casting choices prove to be a stroke of genius – and a way for two of the Disney darlings to rid themselves of that image. So far, Vanessa Hudgens has mostly been known for playing Gabriella Montez in the High School Musical series (and for her role in Zack Snyder’s ambitious failure Sucker Punch). Selena Gomez, on the other hand, has constantly been in the limelight because of her on-off relationship with Justin Bieber. Starring as reckless girls in skimpy undies in an indie movie by Harmony Korine can do wonders for not being typecast as a Disney princess for the rest of your life.

Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine, the director’s wife, complete the female foursome. While the girls all do fine in their respective roles, the true star of Spring Breakers is James Franco as drug-dealing Alien. He has long been known for choosing rather quirky parts, including Playboy founder Hugh Hefner in the recent Lovelace, and this one fits right in. His nickname, ‘Alien,’ is well-deserved, since he really looks and behaves as if he wasn’t from this world. An uncomfortable nut job to be around, he lures the willing girls right into his extraterrestrial empire of narcotics, arms, and apparently endless summer.

To a certain degree, Spring Breakers represents the age-old American dream totally gone south – in a double sense. It’s not just that the four female teenagers embark for a young hedonist’s paradise geographically; the movie also shows that, at times, capitalism in the country seems to be a little south of sanity as well. Alien and his entourage are merely the embodiment of that dangerous and, at the same time, alluring ‘culture.’ They virtually represent everything that is wrong about the United States these days, in the same manner as the main characters from Kids brought out the worst fears adults had about urban American teenagers in the 1990s.

In Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine and his Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie do a similarly stunning job for the college girls and pimps of today with style. For an indie project, the film is an impressive visual experience. Does it have enough substance as well? That really depends on who you talk to. In storytelling terms, there’s no denying the trash factor that Spring Breakers definitely has – but that comes as no surprise. It’s a Harmony Korine movie, after all. The man likes to shock and polarize, and this movie does all of that. Some may see the film as nothing but expensive soft porn because of its glossy look. Of course, the promise of a lot of skin is the bait the director uses to lure us into his trap, and the younger audiences who grew up on the Disney pictures with Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in particular.

Underneath the smooth surface, however, Spring Breakers is a classic holiday-gone-wrong story. As usual, Harmony Korine takes things to the extreme with this satiric exploration of both ‘gangsta’ and collage party culture and the almost nihilistic avenue the individuals in his movie pursue. Their motto is as simple as it gets: pleasure at all costs. That sounds easier than it is, as does the whole premise of the project. Yet Spring Breakers is neither an easy film to watch nor is it for everybody. You have to be ready to get into the movie. Otherwise, Harmony Korine’s latest feature will probably drive you insane, but that may be exactly what the director intended.