Harmony Korine's new film has a surreal take on the mayhem that often accompanies American students' wild annual trips.
Four pretty girls in swimsuits doing wrong in an orgy of lust and violence: it’s an all-American movie fantasy to cheer any Hollywood executive.
In the hands of Harmony Korine, the rebellious auteur behind the ground-breaking Kids, and featuring Disney starlets Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson as well as James Franco, Spring Breakers promises to be one of the most unusual, challenging mainstream films of the season.
Suggestive “slo-mo” shots of young women enjoying the eroticised rituals of one of America’s student rites of passage – the riotous spring vacation – may suggest Korine is straying dangerously close to a teen exploitation movie. But then again, Korine’s observation of spring break and its staples of sun, drinking, drugs and teenage hormones, could be one of the most daring films to make it into theatres in years.
Critics in the US, where the film is released this week, are divided, and it’s unclear if Korine himself knows what he’s created. “People get in their cars, drive down to Florida or fly down to Cancún to destroy everything, have sex, do drugs – a complete beach debauchery,” he told the Observer. “Then they get back in their cars, go back to school and pretend to their parents it never happened. It’s been going on for decades.”
The spring break is a parent’s nightmare, offering the prospect of youthful alcohol poisoning, arrests for drunk and disorderly conduct, and unprotected sex. “I never thought of it as uncommon,” says Korine. “Then last year I started looking at the imagery – hyper-violent, hyper-sexual imagery with all the childlike pop culture indicators around them: the nail polish, the swimsuits, the puke, the donuts. It was the hidden, coded language I got interested in. It says everything and nothing.”
Korine’s cast is one of the most surprising things about the film. If teen stars Gomez (a former girlfriend of Justin Bieber and the star of Disney’s The Wizards of Waverly Place), Benson (Pretty Little Liars) and Hudgens (Gabriella Montez in the High School Musical series) wanted to obliterate their wholesome reputations, this was one way to do it.
The group play a group of bikini-clad students who just want to have fun. They pull off an armed robbery and make it to Florida where they meet James Franco’s slimy gangster, Alien, described by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the most “repulsive cinematic creations in recent memory”. “James Franco is his own thing,” says Korine. “Wherever he goes, he goes. He doesn’t have any fear. He just eats it all up.”
Under the Florida sun, says the director, the young women transcend economics, race or sex. “They become shape-shifting gangsters.”
“We talked about how he wanted to leave my lifestyle behind and have me go on this adventure with him,” Gomez recalled last week. “I knew it was going to be crazy, but I was comfortable with it. Harmony wanted an innocence because he thought it would be creepier.”
Korine was delighted with their embrace of a project far from their previous roles: “I didn’t have to do any convincing or hustling. They were totally game from beginning and it never seemed there was much career strategising. I have a body of work. People can see what I’m trying to do and the places I try to go to. They know I go hard and they know that I don’t fake it.”
It was 1995’s Kids that made scriptwriter Korine one of the most exciting young voices of his generation. It told the story of a young HIV-positive skateboarder who sets out to deflower as many virgins as possible. It introduced its director, Teenage Lust photographer Larry Clark, to a more mainstream audience, and made a starlet of Chloe Sevigny.
Then came Gummo (1997), about a prostitute with Down’s syndrome and a gang of glue-sniffing, cat-killing teenagers in a Midwest backwater. Critics hated it but it became an instant cult classic, with devotees that included Werner Herzog and Gus Van Sant. New York Times critic Janet Maslin called it “the worst film of the year”. Herzog, who became a mentor, called to congratulate him. “This movie is now destined to live forever,” he said.
Korine’s punk lead set the tone of rebelliousness for others to follow. His personal life followed his cinematic: he descended into an era of sustained drug addiction and his subject material became stranger by turns. Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) was inspired by a schizophrenic uncle.
Korine veered from the carelessness of addiction toward actual self-harm. A video project, Fight Harm, involved goading strangers into beating him up. “I thought I was making the greatest comedy,” he later remarked.
He survived two house fires and moved to Paris, where designer and cinephile Agnès B put him up in an apartment, an experience that produced Mister Lonely, a film about a lost Michael Jackson impersonator. After that he lived with Indians in the Central American jungle.
But what of Spring Breakers? It is by most standards Korine’s most mainstream work to date. The film, he says, was never meant to be an essay or an exposé. “It’s an impressionistic reinterpretation of events. A pop poem. It’s more interesting to me when they start flirting with the gangster culture – the beach noir – the drugs, the violence, with its rotting yachts in the backyard and the palm trees.
“It’s that culture of surfaces and the pathology that’s the residue of it. The menace that’s out there is really what I wanted to get into.”