Oftentimes, after the final frame of a film flickers off the screen, we leave the theater with questions in tow. There are some movies that we expect will perplex us, and we welcome the challenge. However, there are times when seemingly basic features blindside us. From the trailers, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers looked like nothing more than a wild crime film functioning on the gimmick of casting several former squeaky-clean child stars.
And while those elements were not misrepresented in the trailers, Spring Breakers presented some ineffable qualities that prompted a scratch or two of the old noggin. Amid its many bizarre twists and cartoonish characters is more than a glimmer of self-awareness. Something else is clearly going on with Spring Breakers. After a month’s worth of contemplation, we are finally ready to sift through some theories.
This was no simple endeavor, as Spring Breakers was a colossal mind fornication. It was arty in the exhibition of even the silliest or most seemingly most contrived elements. At first, suppositions arose based on the film’s male lead: James Franco. Franco plays Alien, a scummy low-rent gangster with delusions of grandeur. Franco inhabits this role with scene-stealing commitment to its absurdity. A possible connection to another absurd character in Franco’s repertoire first got the cerebral wheels turning.
Perhaps Alien is the older sibling of Saul Silver from Pineapple Express. It isn’t simply the fact that Franco has played both roles; there are more than a few similarities between the two characters. Like Alien, Saul is… shall we say, a purveyor of illicit indulgences? The two also share an abiding affinity for rap music and urban gangster culture. Furthermore, both characters proved to be the most engaging part of their respective films. But while Saul is a character who is pulled into a world of dangerous organized crime, though not a stranger to bending the law himself, Alien is a criminal who pulls fledgling criminals into the seedier aspects of the underworld. They are the yin and yang of one singular entity… an entity that in turn would love The Ying Yang Twins.
But that theory did not hold water for long. Then, questions began to arise as to Alien’s nickname, and whether it was indeed a nickname. Was Alien actually an extraterrestrial hiding in plain sight? His cornrows and metal-plated teeth are indeed of this world, odd as they may look on him, but his antics and obsessions suggest an intergalactic life form poorly attempting to blend in amongst the Earthlings. Is he in fact from a planet comprised of beings attracted insatiably to colorful objects? If not, his intensely proud boast of possessing “shorts — every color” seems incongruent with the other status symbols he shows off to the girls. This might also explain his hypnotic attraction to the music of Britney Spears. Perhaps he’s originated from a planet that only just began receiving transmissions of Now That’s What I Call Music Volume 16, and Spears is their adored siren.
That may explain Franco’s character, but what about the rest of the film? We have excessive co-ed nudity, out-of-control drunken parties, and a soundtrack surging with dubstep; underscoring the film’s sexual energy. It is therefore not surprising that the film has drawn comparisons to a Girls Gone Wild video. But what about the rampant violence and criminality? That content seems more appropriate for the Grand Theft Auto videogame franchise. Is Spring Breakers conceiving of what a Girls Gone Wild videogame would look like? Is this the reason for some of the over-the-shoulder photography in the final gun battle? Is that why we start with four girls (four player lives) that are then whittled down as the plot progresses? The weapon upgrades and varying degrees of nefariousness in the characters we meet along the way would also support this.
Ultimately, however, the most feasible theory regarding the nature of Korine’s Floridian college crime opus centered on its association with a classic subgenre.
Spring Breakers could be viewed as a contemporary iteration of a 1950s juvenile delinquent film. A great example of this would be Kitten with a Whip starring Ann-Margret. It’s a film in which a teenage girl hijacks one poor politician’s life just because she can. These movies often served as a cautionary tale for parents, though gladly accepted most of their financial gains from younger audiences. The most famous of these films is of course Rebel Without a Cause.
Spring Breakers is our Rebel Without a Cause. It too translates typical youthful rebellion into causeless malice. In Rebel, James Dean, despite his suburban upbringing, exists in a world of knife fights and deadly street races. He struggles to establish an identity against a backdrop of frustrating comfort and predictability. He lashes out against the stagnate security of his life.
Our four Spring Breakers may not be as wealthy as Jim Stark, based on their having to rob a diner to obtain the funds necessary to embark on their Spring Break trip, but their attendance of college would insinuate that they are seemingly well-off. Also, like Jim, they seem to have at least decent relationships with their parents/guardians. We don’t see these parents, again a function of the girls attending college, but the snippets of phone conversations we hear suggest close relationships. And yet for all of their stability, they too can’t stand the repetitive structure of their lives. And if Jim was raging against complacency, these girls declare all-out war.
This skewed sense of desperation, this somewhat incendiary boredom, can be a primary motivation for college students to feel they need to blow off steam and take such tremendous leave of their senses on Spring Break; pointless, self-destructive rebellion at its finest. Korine has simply taken the wannabe street gang hoodlum antagonist from Rebel Without a Cause and re-imagined him as a wannabe gangster rapper who draws out the absolute worst in the female leads already teetering on the brink.
This connection to Rebel Without a Cause may be more than conjecture. Apparently, in June of last year, Harmony Korine and James Franco put together a conceptual art piece for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art called Rebel, an exhibit described as a reinterpretation of Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece. It would seem that fascination with the James Dean film has carried over. Only instead of a red leather jacket, this film’s hero will be remembered for a different look entirely: The cornrows. The grill. And of course… the shorts.