So, I saw Spring Breakers.
NOT RECOMMENDED unless you already think you might like it, in which case you will probably enjoy at least parts of the film.
Spring Breakers is full of indelible imagery, but it's choppy and disjointed and ultimately stupid (and almost certainly meant to be stupid, which is no excuse). It almost had a strong dramatic arc, but really could've used quite a bit cut out of the soft middle.
Harmony Korine, in general, knows what he's doing. He gets how movies work - on top of his admirable eye for shot composition and color, he has a strong sense of visual storytelling, and is adept at conveying suspense, mood, and his characters' internality through editing. These strengths make Spring Breakers' flaws more frustrating, as if Korine had no one to tell him when a scene was floundering or falling short of what he intended to communicate.
Korine is good at long takes and long scenes, and seems to enjoy composing them, but he often lacks the confidence to follow through - he too often falls on montage to cut up the longer scenes into punchy little chunks, and the clips he cuts in as contrast, or to attenuate the mood of the scene, are too often reused from earlier in the film. When he cuts with purpose, and not to shore up a scene that he's unwilling to let stand on its own, Korine's use of montage is one of the film's strengths. This is most notable when he frequently throws in glimpses of the aftermath of an impending mistake, while the characters fail to anticipate the consequences about to fall upon them. However, by the end of Spring Breakers I was so sick of the same shots of beach partiers, and flashbacks to the first act, that I wished the film was at least ten minutes shorter. Another disadvantage of the reuse of footage is that it sometimes feels like scenes were shot back-to-back but are presented as occurring days apart - this may or may not be the case, and Korine's playing with chronology makes it distracting when identical mise-en-scène recurs in more substantial form than one of his quick cuts to flashback.
At the beginning of Spring Breakers, I was sure I was watching a full-on satire of the entirety of "youths behaving badly" film. The opening montage of cartoonishly sexualized beach partying, set to "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites", is hilariously over-the-top, and the scenes of the protagonists' ordinary college lives are exaggerated equally, in different directions, so that I was inclined to think the whole thing was a series of facetious gestures, a big formalist film joke.
That sense was upended for when uncomfortable earnestness emerges with Selena Gomez' character, Faith (SO SYMBOLIC). Faith is nominally a Christian struggling with temptation, but she seems to lack any understanding of just what all this "sex" and "partying" stuff her friends are into actually is. Gomez plays up Faith's conflicted morality so much that I found it hard to believe she was actually experiencing the insidious temptations that led her to follow her larcenous, licentious best friends to Florida. They just show up, say "get in the car, loser, we're going Spring Breaking", and she agrees.
It doesn't help that Korine saddles Gomez with the film's most tiresome aspect - a series of monologues to her friends and to herself in which Faith explicitly lays out the symbolic value spring break represents in these girls' lives, an idea Korine repeatedly revisits in her ironically upbeat phone calls home. This material could've been archly funny if it was a bit more pointed and clever, but Korine writes it as a girl who's just blithely trying to make the best of the debauchery her friends are pulling her into, and Gomez is stuck playing it that way.
The earnestness of Gomez' portrayal also makes it hard to swallow her participation in her friends' antics - their suggestive banter and behavior amongst themselves is probably meant by Korine as a depiction of how young women are naively conditioned to sexualize themselves at all turns, but taken in contrast with Gomez playing an actual naïf, her friends' exhibitionist joking around feels monstrously inauthentic. Their suggestive interplay feels less like any type of commentary than like the invented sorority-girl behavior that's the bread and butter of softcore exploitation film (funny how that works!).
This playful restlessness gives way to their desperation to go away for spring break, which gives us the film's one truly virtuoso sequence: a single-take robbery scene that I don't want to describe for fear of spoiling the magic for anyone reading who might actually watch it in the future. Seriously, at the end of this scene, I thought to myself "well, that was worth the price of admission" (though I must admit I caught a matinee). I've read it's an homage to Joseph H. Lewis' classic b-movie "Gun Crazy", though, so it may be familiar to viewers who are better cinephiles than me.
After the robbery, it's back to their frivolous lives, but fortunately, the mannered depiction of Southern suburban college life is all out of the way once they get to Florida, where the friends indulge in an relatively authentic - at least as authentic as MTV reality programming or Girls Gone Wild - depiction of what people seek on a spring break trip south. This middle section of the film is stylish but soft - we lazily observe the ambiguous fulfillment of the characters' petty bacchanalian desires, until they finally get in perfunctory legal trouble. It seems like the worst thing at stake here is spending two days in jail for failing to pay a fine, apparently forced to wear the same bikinis they were arrested in the whole time, but they get bailed out as the film introduces what must be the real reason for its existence: James Franco.
Franco nearly disappears in a role for once as Alien, a drug dealer and would-be rapper. The role gives him his customary opportunity for cocky self-aggrandizement and charismatic bravado, but, since Alien isn't meant to be likeable or admirable at all, it frees him from the typical "oh, it's James Franco again" James-Franco-ness of most James Franco performances. The character is consistent and believable, though, a vivid and recognizable depiction of one of the worst kinds of man. Alien is an emotional bully whose every action seems intended to shore up his self-image - he alternates between self-praise, demanding whatever he wants at the moment, and overtures to prove that he's really just a nice guy, lookin out for people, just trying to do something good for these girls.
In another of the film's best scenes, he fails to convince Faith that he is a nice guy, and her exit provides the impetus for the film's last act, something I can only describe as a triumph of ironic futurism. Franco's character and the remaining three girls push each other further and further into their inevitable embrace of sex, drugs and violence, and Korine layers the superficial trappings of innocence over what we're meant to see as their true, corrupted selves. If I were a media studies student, I'd posit that Korine's development of these characters is meant to show that beautiful, callow young people robbing and murdering each other is the inevitable culmination of Western capitalism. Fortunately, I have no reason to write that essay.
There are a few great sequences in the third act, most notably a violently psychosexual scene where the girls turn the tables on Alien (culminating in a line that had the whole theater laughing) and a singalong by Alien's poolside piano which moves into a gorgeous slow-mo montage of the girls joining him in his thuggish vocation. By the end of the film, Korine is seriously overdoing it, but he still had me smiling even with little tricks like dressing Alien and the girls entirely in colors that glow under blacklight for the climactic confrontation at Gucci Mane's neon-pink-glowing house. With the requisite violent climax out of the way, the film's conclusion is ambiguous about the moral fate of the characters, which is much appreciated - if Korine decided to belabor one of the points he flirted with making earlier, it would blunt the film's sharp edges.