Let’s talk about Megan Ellison.
As the daughter of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, Megan grew up as the heiress to billions. Yet for some reason, in 2006, Megan decided to take her fortunes and go into movies. She financed a few films here and there, but nothing really came of it until Megan joined with her brother, David Ellison, to help make a little 2010 western called True Grit.
In the years since, the Ellison siblings have mostly gone on separate producing careers. David Ellison went on to found Skydance Productions, one of the shingles behind such films as Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and Jack Reacher, in addition to the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness, GI Joe: Retaliation, and World War Z. Basically, David Ellison has thrown his weight behind massive blockbusters. Little sister, on the other hand, went a totally different route.
Through her Annapurna Pictures company, Megan has stamped her exec-producer credit on such films as Lawless, Killing Them Softly, The Master, and Zero Dark Thirty. By anyone’s standards, that’s some damned impressive work for only two years. Basically put, Megan Ellison has quickly become known for investing her fortunes in movies so challenging and risky that no studio would take a chance on them otherwise. She has an uncanny knack for going into development hell and coming back with quality projects from outstanding filmmakers for all of us to enjoy.
In only a few short years, Ms. Ellison has proven herself to be a powerful force for good in the world of cinema. And she’s only 27. Only two years older than I am. That’s the kind of realization that really puts your life in perspective, you know?
Anyway, here’s Spring Breakers, the latest film brought to us by Annapurna Pictures. I have to admit, this one had me scratching my head for a long time. On paper, a movie about four young co-eds — two of them played by Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, of all people — stuck out like a sore thumb amid Ms. Ellison’s filmography so far. Throw in the involvement of James Franco, and I had absolutely no idea what was going on. None of these disparate parts seemed to fit together. But then I found the one name that cleared everything up.
If you’ve never heard of Harmony Korine… well, there’s a reason for that. Korine is perhaps best known for writing a 1995 movie called Kids. According to IMDB, the film is about “an amoral, HIV-positive skateboarder [who] sets out to deflower as many virgins as possible while a local girl who contracted his disease tries to save his next target from her same fate.” Right off the bat, you can guess why this film got major attention in the arthouse circuit, but was actively avoided by the mainstream.
Korine has written and directed a lot of short films in the time since, but his most recent feature film was Trash Humpers in 2009. It’s literally a movie about people who hump garbage. Basically, it’s a commentary on our materialist and oversexualized culture by way of “reduction to the absurd.” Oancitizen describes the concept far better than I ever could, mostly because he’s actually seen the movie.
So here’s a maverick director known for satirizing cultural excesses in the most gut-wrenching ways possible… and he’s turned his lens toward the “Girls Gone Wild” set. No wonder the arthouse aficionados at Annapurna wanted in on this.
What makes it even more hilarious is that a huge part of the film’s advertising and hype revolved around Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in bikinis. The film offered tantalizing hints of actresses ditching their “child star” personas in an ocean of sex and nudity, luring in the very types of lecherous people whom this film was made to ruthlessly dissect. The irony and the bastardly genius of this ploy are just too perfect.
And if anyone came to this movie hoping to see either of the starlets naked, joke’s on them. Of the four major actresses, the only one to show any R-rated skin is Rachel Korine, who just happens to be the director’s wife. That said, there is still a metric ton of nudity to be found among the film’s extras and background characters.
I’ll put it to you this way: The film opens with a sequence of typical “Girls Gone Wild” antics. There are college-age guys and girls splashing and screaming while in various stages of undress. We see girls flipping off the camera, flashing their tits, guzzling down beer bongs, all that good stuff. In one shot, there’s a line of guys who are pouring beer onto girls’ naked chests, from beer cans positioned at crotch-level. And all of this is shown to us over dubstep music, shot in slow-motion so we can take in every frame.
Now, there are two kinds of people in this world. The first will see all of this and think “That is so disgusting, not to mention unsafe.” The second will go “That looks so fucking awesome!” This film is about the second type.
Before going any further, there’s one very prominent symbol in this film that I’d like to discuss. I want to get this out of the way early, because it really is the entire film in a nutshell. Very early in the narrative, we see one of the characters (the one played by Ashley Benson, I think) loading a squirt pistol with liquor, putting the barrel in her mouth, and squeezing the trigger. Later on, we see different characters giving passionate blowjobs to actual guns loaded with live ammunition. One of them even sucks off two at the same time.
That image — one of a twenty-something co-ed fellating a gun barrel — should have been one of the film’s posters. That should be the front of this movie’s DVD case. Everything you need to know about this film is contained in that one image.
On one level, it’s about the erotic nature of self-destruction. It’s about the thrill of doing something in spite of and precisely because of how badly it’ll fuck your shit up. Moreover, there’s a great allure in doing something ridiculously fun and dangerous, if only to risk death before old age and the real world can set in. On another level, it’s about the illusion of immortality. It’s about brazenly flirting with something fatally dangerous, just because someone is so confident in their ability to control it. Until, of course, that illusion falters to tragic results.
That, in one paragraph, is this movie.
Our primary cast is comprised of four college students, all of whom have been friends since kindergarten. Only one of them has any degree of depth, but I’ll get to her in a minute. The other three are Candy, Brit, and Cotty, respectively played by Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine. Not that their names matter, of course. All three of these young women are so obsessed with sex and drugs that it’s a wonder they haven’t flunked out yet. Even worse, these girls are all so brain-dead and desperate to get to Spring Break that they hold up a restaurant to get the necessary cash. With spray-painted squirt guns, no less.
On the flip side, we have Selena Gomez’ character. Faith is a practicing Christian, though I assume that’s only because she was born into the religion. She goes through the motions, but it’s clear that Faith has become disillusioned with church and prayer. She’s tired of living a sheltered life consisting of the same-old same-old, so she leaves with her friends for Spring Break.
I’d like to pause at this moment to point out that though these characters are stupid and short-sighted to a self-destructive degree, none of them are truly malicious (at first, anyway). During the restaurant heist, for example, there’s a very strong implication that if any of their marks had actually called the cops or showed any sign of resistance, they would have turned tail and fled in an instant. They act without realizing that their actions have consequences, and that’s the point entirely.
For these girls, Spring Break in Florida holds the promise of complete freedom. No restrictions, no expectations, no responsibilities, and no consequences. For Faith in particular, it means more than that. She sees this as a chance to go out and really learn who she is. While all of the mayhem is happening, we listen in as she calls her grandma to lie about what’s happening. Faith says that the vacation is a spiritual experience, that she’s meeting all manner of sweet people, etc. And she may not be lying at all.
But inevitably, consequences do catch up with our young protagonists, and this is naturally a shock to their systems. After all, they never really gave a thought about how this would all end, they just thought that these good times were going to last forever. Moreover, since when was it against any law to have a good time? Even better, there’s one point in the movie when these girls promise themselves that they won’t let anything bad happen to each other. Sure, the promise is heartfelt, but who do they think they’re kidding? How can they protect each other when they can’t even protect themselves?
Last but not least, there’s the question of when these characters will get a clue. Throughout the entire running time, there’s always the question of when these characters will finally draw a line and say that they’ve had enough. Even more importantly, there’s the question of whether they’ll be able to back out if and when they want to.
Moving on, let’s talk about Alien, the rapper/drug dealer played by an unrecognizable James Franco. He’s the guy who pays bail for our young friends and subsequently takes them into his world of money, guns, drugs, and sex.
The very first time we meet Alien, he’s onstage addressing his audience in a way that strangely mirrors a priest we saw earlier. One’s preaching spirituality, the other’s preaching materialism. Even better, Alien repeatedly claims that he came to Earth from another planet. From a certain point of view, I’d argue that this charismatic individual who claims to come from on high sounds remarkably like someone else.
To be clear, I’m not saying that Alien is like Christ. I’m saying that if anything, he’s the motherfucking Antichrist. Seriously, if you told me that Alien would somehow be responsible for the end of the world, I’d believe it.
That isn’t to say that the movie has some heavy-handed message against or in favor of religion, however. Instead, the film seems to implicitly portray virtue and sin as two sides of the same coin. On one extreme, we have people living long and repetitive lives. On the other, we have people going out early in a blaze of indulgence. Either way, they’re just sheep obeying the word of some hypocrite, never really living life to its full potential. Additionally, there’s the fact that however bad the “Spring Break” lifestyle is for these girls, they wouldn’t last a single Sunday worship, either.
Still, it bears repeating: Though the film makes some very fascinating comparisons between the two, no concrete statement on the matter is explicitly made. When the surviving characters leave Florida and go back to college, we don’t go back with them. They’re gone from the movie for good, leaving us to interpret their fates and life choices for ourselves.
I’ve already discussed how three out of our four female protagonists are totally interchangeable, but the chemistry between all four of them is rock-solid, and that’s the important thing. Selena Gomez does a particularly good job when she’s called upon to act as a detached observer. We’ve also got James Franco, who quite solidly proves that he’s got more range than most give him credit for.
Then again, the cast also includes Gucci Mane as Alien’s BFF-turned-archnemesis, Archie. It turns out that Gucci Mane is a godawful actor in addition to being a godawful rapper. We’ve also got Thurman and Sidney Sewell as a pair of twins in Alien’s employ. They tend to appear and disappear as the plot requires, and I don’t think they have a single line of dialogue.
These characters and the actors who play them are all totally worthless. Mercifully, the film demands so little of them that they don’t do a whole lot of damage.
Next up, let’s talk about the film’s soundtrack. One of the film’s credited composers is Cliff Martinez, who put together the unique trance/techno sound of Drive in 2011. He makes a fine partner for the one and only Skrillex, the film’s other credited composer. Together, they create an overwhelming electronic soundtrack to this film, perfectly suited to the “party party party” subject matter of the film.
More to the point, the music is quite defiantly set in the present. It’s comprised mostly of dubstep, a relatively recent trend that will most likely flame out in a few years. Additionally, the film makes reference to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” which was released in 2002. Britney Spears and her late-’90s heyday also get a shout-out. The film — like its characters — is very much a product of the moment, with little if any regard for the past or the future. Honestly, I think that Brian de Palma’s Scarface may be the oldest reference in this picture.
(Side note: I always get a laugh out of rappers and wannabe gangsters who hold Scarface up as a role model. I wonder if any of them know how that movie ends. Hell, I haven’t even seen the film yet and I still know how it ends.)
Then there are the visuals. The movie is quite dazzling in its use of neon and day-glo colors, though Korine may have taken things a bit too far. I can understand why he’d use such bright lights and colors in a club scene, for example, but he uses the exact same lighting scheme in a classroom early on. I have no idea why he thought to do this. It really muddles things.
As for the editing… hoo boy. I’ll put it to you this way: The narrative isn’t really structured as a straight line going from point A to point B. It’s more like a line that goes from point A to point B, looping back on itself multiple times along the way.
The film has a nasty habit of repeating itself, replaying scenes and dialogue clips that we only heard something like five seconds before. Easily the most prominent is Alien’s whisper of “Spring Break. Spring Break. Spring Break forever” that repeats through the entire second half. Additionally, some of the playbacks are slightly different in a way that suggests we might not be seeing the story in chronological order. Oh, and let’s not forget the sound of a pistol-cocking noise that gets thrown in with pretty much every scene transition.
I’ll grant that all of these flourishes lend the film a very dreamlike feel, which goes hand-in-hand with the psychedelic lighting and the trance music. On the other hand, it can all get very annoying and confusing.
Spring Breakers is not a film for the lighthearted. This movie is all about sleaze and for better or worse, you will leave the theater in want of a shower. There’s also the matter of a few slight casting mistakes and the editing gone bananas. Still, the visuals are undeniably powerful, the music is nicely fitted to the story, and James Franco turns in a stunning performance (though I’m not sure that’s a compliment). Most importantly, the film addresses materialism and sexuality in novel ways that are jaw-droppingly bold.
So what’s my recommendation? Well, I firmly believe that any film worth talking about is a film worth seeing, and vice versa. And this is, without question, a film worth talking about.