Kids gone wild in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers was hotly buzzed about on release, but eventually settled down to a 63 on Metacritic and 3-stars-out-of-five on Letterboxd. Both of which aren’t great, but a lot higher than my personal estimation. This would be certainly not the first time my personal reaction to a movie has been against the consensus, but I am usually able to understand the other points of view. Spring Breakers is an extreme case where I just flat-out hated a movie to the extent that I can’t comprehend another reaction.

Is it the Gatsby-esque exposé of the essential hollowness of the American Dream? Is it the showboating performance by an unusually engaged James Franco? Is it Korine’s return to his wheelhouse subject matter of unsupervised youth gone astray? Or, as I strongly suspect, is it really just the teenage girls (including pop star Selena Gomez) in bikinis? Come on, admit it.

I myself never went anywhere on spring break, and the culture as portrayed here is totally alien to me (even accounting for any exaggeration). So it’s possible that of the certain percentage of American kids that do “go wild” on sprrrraaaanng break, a percentage of that percentage does get mixed up in criminal activity. Perhaps I grew up in a sheltered environment, predisposed to just not get it, man. But Spring Breakers feels like science fiction to me, even less relatable than actual science fiction. Or maybe an anthropological documentary film about an isolated culture in a rainforest.

Spring Breakers and Kids (Korine’s 1995 debut as a screenwriter) both masquerade as slice-of-life looks inside the teenage mind, cynically employing a cinéma vérité style to make everything feel real. They were both ostensibly marketed for teenage audiences, with the promise that their authentic experiences would be represented for the first time. The cynic in me worries these movies are actually cautionary tales intended for smotheringly overprotective older generations, indulging the darkest fantasies of a scolding right-wing puritanical mainstream culture.

I’m not kidding. Please, someone please explain to me how Spring Breakers is anything other than “Kids Redux: It’s 10PM, Do You Know Where Your Kids Are and Are You Sure They’re Not Doing Coke, Having Unprotected Sex, Binge Drinking, Playing With Guns, and Sassing Their Elders?”

one out of five stars

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk

Any friend of this blog will know that I almost universally hate biopics. As I’ve complained in my reviews of Control, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and even Walk Hard, I believe that the feature film is fundamentally ill suited for biography. One seemingly minor lesson from college that wound up sticking with me is Edgar Allen Poe’s definition of the short story as a prose piece that can be experienced in a single sitting (The Philosophy of Composition, 1846). No one expects a serious portrait of a person’s entire life in a few pages, so why should we applaud a movie? The feature film’s two-hour running time is more akin to a short story than to a book-length novel or biography, and yet the biopic is a dominant genre in movies. I would argue the primary reason is that they give ambitious actors the opportunity to exercise their imitation skills. It pleases audiences who perceive “true stories” as being of greater merit than fiction (mere make-believe!), and pandering to the Academy, who love nothing better than a technically impressive mimicry of an addict or handicapped person. I actually welcomed Walk Hard, for although a terrible movie itself, it finally mocked the formulaic drug-addicted musician biopics Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie En Rose, and El Cantante.

Sean Penn in Milk

Director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black’s Milk, on the other hand, strikes me as less insincere than its peers. For one thing, it examines only a ten-year span of a man’s life, avoiding the genre’s usual Cliff’s Notes-like approach to summarizing a famous figure’s life into a series of highlights. And yes, Sean Penn did win an Oscar for a lively, spirited performance worlds apart from his natural demeanor. But I believe he, like everyone else involved, approached the project with nothing but the highest integrity, and truly hoped the timely project could affect public opinion.

Milk was in theaters during shortly after the national debate over California’s Proposition 8, which denied the right to marry to a significant portion of the population (thanks to commenter Sapphocrat below for the correction). It’s impossible to miss the parallels to Harvey Milk’s struggle in 1978 against Proposition 6, which would have enabled the firing of homosexual teachers and (this is the truly amazing part) anyone that supported them. One of the movie’s biggest achievements is that it emphasized the sheer urgency of the gay rights movement. Equality was not just something that’s time had come. Gays were not only fighting for rights they hoped some day to have; they were fighting to keep the what rights they did have from being taken away.

Josh Brolin in Milk

I must admit that all I knew about Harvey Milk was the tangential bit of trivia that his assassin Dan White (Josh Brolin) was the first to employ the infamous “Twinkie Defense” in court, claiming that a diet of junk food altered his body chemistry and created a temporary state of insanity. Harvey was originally a New York insurance man, closeted from coworkers and family, but not so much so that he couldn’t brazenly pick up a stranger on the subway (with gaydar so fine-tuned that he could immediately tell that what I would assume to a normal-looking dude in 70s fashions was a fellow Friend of Dorothy). Scott Smith (James Franco) urges him to move to California where he can live more honestly. Harvey initially is happy to just live his new life, but becomes politicized as he faces prejudicial opposition to his small business.

Although it may seem to contradict part of my tirade against biopics at the beginning on this post, it might have been illuminating to see a little more of Harvey as a younger man, before he blossomed into a politically aware, out man. We only learn through passing dialogue that he hid not only his sexuality but even Scott’s very existence from his family. If the aim was to compress the essence of Harvey Milk into a short-form narrative, it strikes me that the major dramatic arc would be his transformation from a closeted man into someone that would later ask an entire community to come out at once.