At first glance, Spring Breakers looks like the ultimate Girls Gone Wild video, taken up several notches.
Four women college students long for the tropical carousing of a Florida spring break. But they find themselves short of cash. Driven to desperation, their courage bolstered by cocaine, three of them (leaving out their Christian friend Faith, played by Selena Gomez) don ski masks and knock over a local diner. Cash in hand, they hit the beach and join the revelry. And revelry there is, from the friends’ languid lounging in the pool to the beaches and hotel rooms crammed with young, exposed, intoxicated flesh. It’s all great fun, until it’s not: a drug bust at a party lands the four friends miserably in jail. Their fortunes turn again when they catch the eye of an enterprising rapper and thug who goes by the name Alien (James Franco). Alien bails them out, takes them in and draws them deeper into a life of violent crime, drugs and big, big guns. Girls gone wild, indeed.
It’s certainly possible - and those marketing the film seem to be banking on this possibility - to see Spring Breakers as a slickly produced, late-adolescent celebration of sex, booze, drugs and violence. But a closer look suggests that writer-director (and 40-year-old) Harmony Korine, while fascinated by the youthful exuberance he portrays, is also troubled by its conventional expressions. By drawing the connections, however improbably, between the rhythms of the characters’ daily lives at college and their eventual slide into chaos, Korine makes it possible to read the film as a searching meditation on the dynamics of human formation. Seen this way, Spring Breakers is a thought-experiment about the logical (if exaggerated) consequences of the ways of life being offered to young people in our culture today, and a challenge to how we think about the best ways of offering them another alternative.
In the movie’s opening scenes, we discover that the characters’ lives are built around a steady rhythm of amusement and thrill-seeking. They watch TV, drink, smoke pot and engage in simulated violence and sexualized play together with numbing regularity. Take the squirt gun that is used in that early robbery: long before its owner threatens the people at the diner with it, we have seen her constantly using it for pretend gunplay (she also uses her fingers when the gun isn’t handy). Within this life of obsessive make-believe, it comes as no surprise when, on the way to the diner heist, the girls shout to each other, “Pretend you’re in a video game! Pretend it’s a movie!” It’s no accident that they slide easily into substance abuse, dangerous sex and assault-weapons violence. They practice for all this every day.
By contrast, the other elements of college life that are trying to make an impression on them are notably thin. The droning instructor in the lecture hall may be conveying information through his endless slideshow, but there’s certainly no formative activity taking place. And the Bible study that Faith attends is similarly ineffective: a few simplistic, happy-clappy songs and an earnest moral exhortation to be on guard against temptation, but again, no truly formative practices. Life at college for these characters impoverishes both mind and spirit, and they take on the practices of ritualized risky behavior in search of a way to transcend the boredom of that life. What they constantly imitate, rehearse and relive in search of excitement - songs, sex, guns, aggression - is what they ultimately become.
I would not recommend Spring Breakers to those who are easily offended or distracted by depictions of late-adolescent carousing and deliberately shocking violence. Yet it does serve as a worthy challenge. We must pay attention to the default formative practices on offer for young people in our culture and offer alternative practices to supplant them - not just right ideas, good feelings or moral exhortation, but the kind of formative practices available in the Christian life.