Plot In order to secure enough money to go away for spring break, three friends, Candy, Brit and Cotty, rob a local restaurant. Leaving their university campus behind, the girls, along with their friend Faith, arrive in Florida to indulge in drugs, alcohol and partying. Soon, the police arrive and the four girls are arrested. Still dressed in their bikinis, they appear in court, but are bailed out by Floridian rapper and gangster, Alien. Traumatised by their arrest and suspicious of Alien’s intentions, Faith gets a coach back home. Still eager for adventure, Cotty, Candy and Brit quickly become entangled in Alien’s criminal lifestyle. One night, Alien and the girls drive past Alien’s ex-best friend and rival, Big Arch, and Cotty is shot by one of Big Arch’s crew. An injured Cotty asks Brit and Candy to return home with her, but they insist on staying with Alien, becoming increasingly involved in his illegal activities. The film culminates in Alien and the bikini-clad, balaclava-wearing Brit and Candy going on a killing spree at Big Arch’s house, in which Alien, along with Big Arch and his gang, are shot dead.
Film note Spring Breakers is a low-budget independent film within an industry that privileges big-budget blockbusters. The film, directed by “enfant terrible” Harmony Korine, combines the kind of transgressive subject matter and stylised aesthetics that are associated with independent art cinema with the commercial draw of former Disney starlets. This controversial move means that although Spring Breakers has been subject to much criticism, it was able to gain an unusually high box office gross for a limited opening (McLintock).
New punk cinema Because of the current drive in the US film industry for high-profit franchises, the relationship between Hollywood and independent film-making is an unstable one. Since Disney bought Miramax in the 1990s, the word ‘indie’ has been used to describe a film’s experimental style or controversial subject matter, rather that the state of its production and distribution. The shift of independent features away from small-scale, low-budget, artistic film-making, towards a more large-scale, big-budget industrial system is known as the “Indiewood” phenomenon (King). However, Spring Breakers possesses both an “indie” sensibility, and is produced and distributed independently. Since its release, there has been a lot of focus on one of the film’s co-distributors, A24, and its indie credentials. Some critics praise A24 for their commitment to “truly” independent cinema within a commercial system (Ehrlich, Fusco), whilst others are less optimistic, seeing these claims as utopian, idealist overstatements, and that in today’s Indiewood climate, such a system cannot last (Lee, Lincoln).
One significant feature of the film’s designation as an indie film is the reputation of its director, Harmony Korine. As producer (Korine’s production company O’Salvation co-produced Spring Breakers), writer, occasional actor (often starring in his own films), and director, Korine possesses a rare amount of agency in an industry that operates on the multiple logics of various individuals and corporations. Since writing the controversial cult classic Kids (1995), Korine has produced a body of work that has been labelled “new punk” (Rombes), “feel-bad” (Lübecker) and “crisis” cinema (Rogers). However, Spring Breakers is a hybrid film, combining elements of experimental art cinema with more mainstream features. Compared to Korine’s previous work, Spring Breakers has more commercial appeal: tickets sold on its opening weekend made more money than all of his previous films combined (Stark), causing Korine to be accused of “selling out” (Corliss). Speaking about the success of Spring Breakers in comparison to his previous work, Korine admits that “the more successful your films are the easier it is to make films in the future” (qtd. in Kohn 211). Even Korine’s decision to show the film in theatres before being released on television or online streaming services is a privilege not afforded to many independent film-makers. Because of the success of Spring Breakers, Korine has been able to subsequently produce commercial products that reference the film. In 2016, he directed a video advertisement for the street fashion label Supreme, starring Gucci Mane, who plays Big Arch in Spring Breakers, and paid homage to the “beach noir” aesthetic of the film in Rihanna’s music video for Needed Me (Kohn 202).
The right to bear arms (and bare skin) To some extent, Spring Breakers continues in the Korinian tradition of experimental art cinema, and it was promoted as such. After its initial screening at the Toronto Film Festival, A24 screened Spring Breakers on limited release in three theatres in New York City and Los Angeles, a technique which is used for low-budget art films in order to create a buzz. Korine himself refers to the film as “pop art cinema” (Kohn 209). It has also been described as “part Dada, part European art cinema, part MTV’s ‘Jackass’” (2013), and placed under Muse Productions’ “artsploitation” banner, which also encompasses films such as Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000). Although art cinema is angled towards a niche market, a large portion of box office returns for Hollywood films come from Europe, and so it is financially savvy for Hollywood to release and promote films with artistic tendencies, in order to attract foreign as well as domestic audiences.
The phrase “artsploitation” is particularly fitting for Spring Breakers as it allows the ambiguities surrounding the film’s place within the Hollywood landscape to unfold. The film is described as art cinema because of its form and aesthetic. The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks and flash-forwards, disrupting the temporal structure to create what Korine calls a “liquid narrative” (Kohn 200). Repetition of images and sounds disorientates the viewer, a technique Korine likens to the looping structure of sample-based electronic music, such as that by EDM artist Skrillex, whose work forms part of the film’s soundtrack (Kohn 200). The opening sequence, which shows crowds of barely-clothed people dancing and drinking on a beach to Skrillex’s dubstep anthem, Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, is repeated throughout the film. At other points, the voices of the female protagonists on the phone to their families, and the sound of rapper-gangster Alien chanting “spring break, spring break forever”, are layered ironically with images of these characters snorting cocaine, wielding guns, and generally misbehaving. The film has been described as a “fever dream”, a phrase so common that The Huffington Post even compiled a list of all the times that it has been used to express the film’s distinctive style (Rosen). Korine told cinematographer Benoît Debie that he wanted the film to look like the rainbow-coloured confectionery Skittles, which is clear from the neon bikinis, customised balaclavas and “DTF” tracksuit bottoms that the girls don as their unofficial uniform.
Despite the art cinema aesthetic of Spring Breakers, the film does feature some classical formal elements in order to attract a larger audience. It has a linear story-line, following the girls from the boredom of their university campus to Florida for their spring break vacation. It also adheres to the conventions of the spring break genre by mixing sexualised nudity and crude humour with violence and horror, as exemplified in films such as Piranha 3D (2010). However, Spring Breakers pushes the genre, self-consciously replacing comedy and profanity with crime film iconography (Alien boasts to Brit and Candy that he has the iconic gangster movie Scarface  “on repeat”). This kind of aestheticised violence, seen also in the films of Nicholas Winding Refn and Quentin Tarantino, is becoming normalised, enabling Korine to produce “art-as-entertainment” (Halligan).
Just as much as its art cinema credentials, the film’s venture into exploitation is key to understanding its appeal, as well as the source of its widespread criticism. Firstly, Spring Breakers is an R-rated film, due to its inclusion of drugs (including bong hits, joint-smoking and cocaine-snorting; recreational marijuana use was legalised in Colorado and Washington the same year that Spring Breakers was released, but it was only until 2016 that marijuana was legalised in Florida, where the film was set, for medicinal purposes only); violence, as demonstrated in the slow-motion scene of Brit, Candy, Cotty and Alien threatening people with guns to the sound of a haunting Britney Spears ballad; sex, including a threesome between Brit, Candy and Alien in a swimming pool; and nudity, such as the scene where Cotty, lying on the floor, reveals her breasts whilst singing “never gonna get this pussy”. Despite industry interest in PG-13 films because of their ability to generate large audiences and thus, large profits, the number of R-rated films being given a nationwide release has recently increased (Cunningham). Aside from major comedy hits such as Universal’s Ted (2012), the largest number of R-rated films come from independents, who have the capacity to take bigger risks when it comes to subject matter. Like many independently-produced films about teenage girls, such as Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003), Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013) and Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl (2016), the girls in Spring Breakers dance provocatively, urinate in public and wear little clothing; when they are arrested, jailed, and arrive in court wearing nothing but brightly-coloured bikinis and branded trainers.
In reviews, many critics focused on the exploitative gaze of the camera, with many conflating the actresses with their characters, and Korine with the camera: “Korine isn’t a passive voyeur. He moves in-in-in on those hot bods — up, down, all around the town” (Edelstein). Candy and Brit, played by Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson, are the most rebellious and sexually promiscuous characters from the start, with Candy pretending to perform oral sex during a lecture on the Civil War, and Brit using a plastic water gun to shoot alcohol in to her mouth – the same plastic gun the girls use to intimidate restaurant diners later on in the film. Alien encourages the girls to continue their outward displays of sexuality, resulting in a scene of shocking power-play when Brit and Candy turn Alien’s gun on himself, only for him to start sucking it, after which Alien tells the girls “y’all my motherfucking soulmates. I swear to God I just fell in love with y’all”. Their relationship culminates in a threesome, after which they decide to murder Alien’s rival, Big Arch, and his gang. As is apparent from these scenes, sex and desire is tied up with ideas of violence and crime. As well as a right as an American citizen, the ability to own and use a gun is the ultimate symbol of (phallic) power. In this way, the film is postfeminist. The young girls smoke, drink, have sex and fire a gun just as much as any man, although their blank expressions in the final shot show that this so-called freedom comes at a cost.
Spring Breakers also presents a troubling portrayal of people of colour. The character of Alien led to accusations of cultural appropriation, being called a “white caricature in a cartoonish masquerade of black masculinity” (Dargis) because of his cornrowed hair and metallic grills (Brody, Harris). When Alien introduces the girls to his friends, the majority of whom are black men, Faith becomes uncomfortable and leaves. The stereotype of the threatening black man produces a narrow view of black existence as one that consists solely of drug dealing, strip clubs and gun crime. On the other hand, Alien, who tells the girls that he was the only white boy growing up in his neighbourhood, encourages the audience to mock the “white trash” stereotype, especially when he perverts the ideal of the American Dream: “everybody’s always telling me, yo you’ve gotta change. I’m about stacking change y’all. Stacking change. That’s it, money. I’m about makin’ money. That’s the dream y’all. That’s the American dream”. However, that Brit and Candy enter a town with a predominantly African-American population, murder its inhabitants in a scene that has been interpreted as modern-day blackface because of the lighting effects used (Brody), and escape by driving away in Big Arch’s car, has a disturbing parallel to Western colonisation, especially at a time where the number of racially-motivated hate crimes in the US is rising. Even the Latina heritage of Gomez and Hudgens is erased, particularly in the case of Hudgens, whose bleached blonde hair allows Candy to blend in with the rest of the privileged, white spring breakers.
Disney stars show their true stripes The most significant commercial aspect of the film is its star cast. After its initial limited release, the film was shown at over 1,000 cinemas nationwide, a scale attributed to the release of Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) the week before, “allowing A24 to piggyback on Disney’s extensive marketing campaign for Oz, which prominently featured Franco” (McLintock). When James Franco, whose company RabbitBandini co-produced the film, criticised plans for a Spring Breakers 2 without his or Korine’s permission, producer Chris Hanley (of Muse Productions, which has been part of various legal disputes since the release of Spring Breakers) accused Franco of being a hypocrite, calling him a “sequel junkie” for starring in the Spider-Man trilogy, Oz, and for planning a sequel to Pineapple Express (2008) (Gaydos). However, Hanley is merely referring to a scene from This is the End (2013), in which Franco stars as a parody of himself, acting out a sequel to Pineapple Express with his co-star and long-time collaborator, Seth Rogen. Alongside Franco’s collaboration with Rogen on the controversial comedy The Interview (2014), Franco has collaborated with director Judd Apatow, capitalising on the comedic “stoner” genre in cult television show, Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), and as a cameo in Knocked Up (2007). From his critically panned performance as co-host of the 2011 Oscar awards ceremony (Goodman), to the accusation that he attempted to meet up with an underage girl over Instagram (Marcus), that Franco chose to play the “sleazy Prince Charming” fits with his star persona (Dargis).
Even more significant than Franco’s reputation is that of the female leads. The performances of Rachel Korine and Ashley Benson are often ignored by critics, as although Benson stars in Disney-owned ABC Family series, Pretty Little Liars (2010-), the reputation and celebrity status of Disney Channel stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens makes them the focus of attention in critical accounts. During casting, Korine wanted people “who were part of the same pop universe as Subway sandwiches, Dunkin’ Donuts and Mountain Dew” (Léger 219), which is perhaps the reason he called Hudgens’s character Candy (although she is anything but sweet, being referred to as “evil” by two girls from Faith’s church group), as well as employing non-actor celebrities such as rapper Gucci Mane and the ATL Twins. Hudgens is best known for her role in the Disney Channel film series High School Musical (2006, 2007, 2008). The same year that the final installment of the trilogy was released in cinemas, nude photos of Hudgens were leaked online. In his tell-all about the pressures of being a young Disney star, Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers recounts how Hudgens “had to be in the Disney offices for a whole day because they were trying to figure out how to keep her on lockdown” after the scandal broke out (Jonas). The wholesome reputation that is forced upon Disney stars has not gone unnoticed, with some critics noting that “the actresses seem happy to do things that would make Uncle Walt spin in his grave” (Dargis), and “I don’t know how the Mouse feels about the attendant hullaballoo — maybe he’s ripping mad, maybe he’s rubbing his white gloves together in glee at the prospect of a ratings boost” (Edelstein). While it is common for film stars to move to indie films in order to change their image, the conservative Christian values that young Disney stars are encouraged to publicly endorse, especially concerning sexuality, such as heterosexual relationships and a promise to not have sex before marriage (as enshrined in the Jonas Brothers’ purity rings, which they have all subsequently taken off), are hard to cast aside without receiving backlash.
Gomez, who is known for her role in the Disney Channel original series Wizards of Waverly Place (2007–2012), and for releasing multiple studio albums under Disney’s aptly-named music label, Hollywood Records, also used Spring Breakers as a vehicle to alter her celebrity image. However, as the most famous cast member (in 2016, Gomez became the most followed person on Instagram, due in part to her on-off relationship with Canadian pop singer, Justin Bieber), and thus most scrutinised, Gomez’s character is far less rebellious than Hudgens’s Candy. In the film, Faith demonstrates her discomfort around Brit, Candy and Cotty by giggling awkwardly when the girls act as though they are deaf, and shakes her head and frowns when they act out how they stole money from the restaurant. Gomez admits that it is the only role in the film that she was comfortable undertaking at the time, a move that was approved by her “momager” (Barnes). Likewise, Korine saw the character of Faith as the moral compass of the group, and so it is after she leaves that the depravity really begins (Kohn 205). That the final episode of Wizards of Waverly Place aired on the same day as the premiere of Spring Breakers may seem like a clean break for Gomez between her reputation as an innocent Disney starlet and a risk-taking indie star. However, since Gomez also premiered Sony’s family-friendly animation Hotel Transylvania (2012) on the same day as Spring Breakers, it is clear that she did not wish to completely obliterate the “good girl” persona that had been consolidated by her previous involvement in films such as Ramona and Beezus (2010) and Monte Carlo (2011) (Coscarelli).
The film’s references to Britney Spears, who starred in the 1990s reboot of Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club when she was a tween, is unsurprising. From singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time” outside a convenience store, to their rendition of “Everytime” with Alien playing a piano on the beach-front (as well as possible inspiration for the name of Benson’s character, Brit), these self-conscious references anticipate the “rise and fall” of young Disney stars, a narrative that has contributed to the success of the film. However, for many of the stars of Spring Breakers, their involvement in the film now exists as merely a fever dream. That Korine has failed to produce a feature since – his current project, The Trap, has experienced numerous delays – suggests that the independent American film industry is as turbulent and short-lived as spring break itself, meaning that it was really Korine’s wish, disguised as Alien’s, to have “spring break forever, y’all”.
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Written by Alexandra Osben (2016); edited by Nick Jones (2017), Queen Mary, University of London
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