Warning: Minor spoilers.
If Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers has a heart and soul (and I think it does), it can be summed up in the following scene: tween idols Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) and Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars) wear pink ski masks with unicorn patches where their horns would be. They pirouette, holding rifles overhead. They are bathed in dusk, and they stand in the backyard of Alien, James Franco's Riff Raff ringer character. He lives on the water (presumably Tampa Bay) and sits at a piano just a few feet from it. He plays 2004's broken-music-box ballad "Everytime," by Britney Spears, whom he's just referred to as "one of the greatest singers...an angel on earth if ever there was one." Spears' original version takes over the soundtrack and we see slow motion scenes of this trio wreak havoc on St. Petersburg, Florida: One of them pistol whips a man who spits blood, they hold up a wedding and a guy gets his face pushed into the cake, they hogtie a group of men and leave them on a hotel bed.
This scene is gorgeous and horrific. Like Spears' voice, it is hilarious and sad. It is pregnant with sentimentality and explosive with brutality. It's tongue-in-cheek and you know as much because the movie's cheek has been ripped open.
Spring Breakers is as trashy as any depiction of a Florida-based spring break should be, but it's not clueless or unreal enough to qualify as camp (not yet, at least, but as things tend to age into the sensibility, it'll be worth reevaluating by Susan Sontag's criteria in a decade or two). The film does sink into the sweet spot of ambiguity, however, of perhaps simultaneous sincerity and kidding that is reserved for the best of modern camp.
Korine uses the same documentary-style approach that he did with Gummo and Trash Humpers for this over-the-top story about a bunch of bad girls who rob a Chicken Shack to fund their debauched spring break. Soon it becomes clear that at least two out of the four of these girls are capable of having as much fun committing crimes as they do partying. Criminal, idiot and rapper Alien (gloriously embodied by Franco) calls two of them his "motherfuckin' soul mates" after they threaten to hold him up and make him perform Beyond the Valley of the Dolls-style fellatio on a gun.
Haha-for-serious is Korine's aesthetic here, and if Spring Breakers isn't his best movie, it's his first that is compulsively watchable throughout. His stunt casting of Disney staples Hudgens and Selena Gomez pays off in the naturalistic performances he wrings out of them. Korine's camera leers at his bad-girl foursome of Hudgens, Gomez, Benson, and his own wife, Rachel Korine. These characters are perverted male fantasies, Girls Gone Wild enhanced with bios. They pantomime blowjobs in anticipation of the fun that awaits them on spring break, crawl between each other's legs in underwear while singing "Hot in Herre," shotgun blunts, pee on the side of the road and make out. "Seeing all this money makes my pussy wet," says Hudgens' character after her successful robbery. "It makes my tits look bigger." That's one way of summarizing the American dream.
Are these characters designed to titillate or satirize? Is Korine's leering camera, which dips under the water while they relax in a parking-lot pool and lunges randomly at their asses as they stand lined up on a pavilion, being held by a creep who's into young girls or a guy who's out to parody the way spring break has been depicted on film for the past few decades? Certainly, his slow shots of beach—and pool—based hedonism (replete with beer bongs and Mardi Gras beads nestled between exposed, jiggling tits) envision what MTV Spring Break programming would look like if shot by someone who believed in art. Even when his girls look like shit, dirty and unkempt under fluorescent jail lights, they're still achingly gorgeous, as young people are. It's unreal and so real.
Korine has it both ways, but he's uncommonly empathic with his characters. I was on edge the entire movie, waiting for something bad to happen to one of the four girls and not much does. One drunken partying scene feels like a setup for rape, but that goes unrealized. As the girls' stay in St. Petersburg stretches on and their spiral widens, some need to check out and they do. Those who stay end up winning; they get exactly what they want.
Spring Breakers is an extremely specific movie, as much about a perennial cultural institution as it is about what that cultural institution looks like in 2013, hence the employment of trap hip-hop and Skrillex-produced EDM. By now we have been inundated with day-glo images of the Electric Daisy Carnival and revelry of its ilk, but Korine goes further to get to the yuck, the scummy residue left by the fun, the molly hangover that our culture sweeps under the rug. Spring Breakers is the portrayal of a nightmare but it's also a dream: its characters want to extend their good time indefinitely and the movie envisions an option. A crime spree is not necessarily reasonable for everybody, but there is something so relatable in these girls' collective wish of never-ending fun.
For me, watching Spring Breakers was a similar experience to watching Drive or Silver Linings Playbook. This is one of the few modern movies whose sheer entertainment value locks eyes with you and says, "You're going to be watching me regularly for the rest of your life." Spring Breakers feels like a new classic. Spring break forever, bitches.