Arto’s review published on Letterboxd:
Allow me to indulge with a lengthy window into my own personal experience with Spring Break. Skip the first two paragraphs if you could care less.
Back in Florida in my early teens years during puberty, I would watch those Spring Break specials on MTV and think "Man, I can't wait to be old enough to go to Daytona and get drunk and see hot horny girls in bikinis flashing their bewbz!" By the time I got out of high school, I was already overexposed to this collective mindset. I lived in Central Florida and most of my post-adolescence was spent along the beachside and every spring and every summer, our beaches would flood with armies of emotionally immature skanky attention whores and testosterone-fuelled douchebags on the prowl, dry-fucking each other amidst a celebration of drugs, alcohol and decadence. Years flew by and this would occur over and over and over and it would never end. It never will.
Needless to say it was irritating, annoying and made me constantly disgusted and miserable. Then a few years later, I'm still living along the beachside and spring and summer come around and like clockwork they would all swarm in all over again, doing the same stupid shit they did last year and the year before that and so on. It really was a swarm too. It was an infestation, like rats, locusts and cockroaches. The beachside was infested with these lowlifes, ranging from late teens to early 40's. Their lives seemed to revolve around waiting for spring and summer of every year so they could all go out and do the same thing every time. Thousands and thousands of human toilets, congregating to party hard for what feels like an eternity, under some masked illusion that they were experiencing their own countercultural revolution of personal freedom, like that of the 60's with Woodstock and such. This illusion disturbs me, because it is real and still full of life and comes only from the reality that this constant decadence is what fuels their nirvana. Drowning in this kind of bullshit made me very miserable and even hateful of the world because this was the only world I was familiar with. I am very happy and proud to say that after finally reaching my limits, I packed my shit and moved far, far away and have been at my happiest since.
I say all this because it pretty much sums up why I hardly had any interest in seeing Spring Breakers. I mostly enjoy Harmony Korine's films. He's far from a master. He lacks as a storyteller, but he certainly makes up for it with a unique style that is impressionable. I don't know what I was expecting with Spring Breakers, but the trailer showed me a world I ran away from without looking back and never wanted to revisit. The only aspect of the film that retained my interest enough to eventually give in was James Franco a whiteboy Scarface wannabe. My reluctance was further washed away because of what Korine does with this world he plunges both the familiar and unfamiliar into. I wouldn't say Spring Breakers dissects what makes Spring Break such a shitty time of the year, nor does it satirize it. Instead it seems to document this event and leave the opinion of what's good and bad about it to the viewer, and I did like that.
Let me just say that Franco's performance is disturbingly spot-on. Most white guys in Florida are either surfers, Rastafarian stoners (arguably the most laughable), bubble-headed overprivileged rich preps, or trashy ghetto boys, most of whom think they're hardened thugs because their fetish of another ethnicity's culture is so intense that they adopt it as their own (which also goes back to the Rastafarian stoners, but lets save their well-deserved ridicule for another time)
James Franco embodied this Floridian wannabe thug stereotype and while Spring Breakers takes its time sliding him into the plot, once he appears, Franco becomes the sole carrier of the film. This also plays into one of Spring Breakers' main flaws and yes, there will be some light spoilers.
This main criticism is the four main protagonists. With the exception of Selena Gomez's character, these girls are not interesting and none of them have anything compelling to say and do anything but move the plot. Their dialogue is so tedious that my mind would constantly wander when talking was the only thing happening. What makes this even more disappointing with Spring Breakers is how the film's direction and shots are executed in a way that marries these characters with its imagery so they are integral to each other. This would have worked had these girls been more interesting and fun to watch, but without that, it just made it overall a movie focusing on a group of characters I don't like, can't relate with and have no care or investment in and by the time the credits rolled, I felt that it failed at convincing us we should give a shit about these people and what they do.
Gomez and Franco were the only characters with any real personality and they were the only two actors that kept my attention whenever they were in a scene. Whenever the other girls were featured, it was just the shots and sequences that made their scenes work effectively, if you want to even call that effective. It's when the film shows their lack of charisma that the atmosphere becomes literally colorful and at times surreal, as if to contrast with when it would border on dirty realism.
This dirty realism fused with loud colors and a dreamlike narrative flow could have worked, and it starts to, except that now I have to come back to a comment I made earlier about Korine: he is not a good storyteller. Frankly, he sucks at it. Gummo is probably my favorite film of his, but there is no story there and that is part of what makes that work. It's presented in a way that doesn't require a plot and is mostly a throwback to documentary-style cinema verite of the 60's and 70's, best exhibited by the talent of two of Korine's biggest influences, Werner Herzog and John Cassavetes, who are masters in their own right. There are echoes of both directors in Korine's vision. It's the lack of storytelling abilities and certain directorial choices that compromise Korine and keep him from ever escaping the fine line between visionary auteur and pretentious attention whore that he's been trapped balancing between since his career began.
The story behind Spring Breakers doesn't work because all the aspects that boost its potential are either swept away or not given enough flesh. By the time the girls are in Florida for Spring Break, Selena Gomez's character becomes the protagonist and as a viewer, I felt myself being guided by her in a way that didn't feel forced. It worked. Her narration of how spiritual this trip was for her, so much that it changes her life is interesting in a depressing kind of way. As the movie progresses, it becomes obvious that this was a incredibly naive view for her to have and sheds light on how sheltered the character is from the real world. One of the most upsetting criticisms I have toward Spring Breakers is that not long after she's been established as the one protagonist we can bare to watch and invest in, she leaves. This is a terrible move, especially because the scene before she leaves is so awesome. I loved how much it escalated in creepy, unsettling territory. It's obvious in this scene that not only is she out of her element and eating her own words about this being a spiritually uplifting experience, but also shows how she really is nothing like her friends. The other three girls are like triplets. They look the same, talk the same and most of the time walk in unison in an annoying manner that is intentionally eerie in a horror movie cliche kind of way.
Gomez's exit from the film was a huge flaw because the potential to have her stay in this dirty world would have aroused the plot's conflict possibly to an all-time high. I loved seeing her surrounded by all these intimidating, scummy, frightening guys who pretty much want to run a train on her. I know that's fucked up of me to say, but I mean it in the same context of how I love it when Laurie Strode is in the same room as Michael Myers and the entertainment that comes from such conflict: it invests us in it more because we care for her and don't want to see her get torn to shreds after she's thrown in with the piranhas.
As watching a film goes, this sort of escalation widens your eyes and raises your adrenaline. That is a great quality in a story within any medium. But instead of retaining that and leaving it open for possibly more intriguing tension, the character is thrown away, as if to say "Alright, we're done with this one. Send her home." She leaves and all I'm left to look forward to is James Franco, who ends up taking center stage. By doing this, he brings the film forward from a serious misstep back and in turn becomes its saving grace. Now, if James Franco had played this role poorly, or another person was cast who failed at filling that void of potential, then Spring Breakers would be a shit film.
That's another of my main problems with it. James Franco is the scene-stealer, the Fonz of the movie. He's not supposed to be the focus of attention for the majority. He's supposed to help carry the other three girls, but they are so uninteresting that Franco can only carry himself. He does it well and truly shines in his performance, but the story is not supposed to be about him. It's supposed to be about these girls, except it barely is and whatever there is about them that's supposed to keep my attention instead made me yawn constantly.
The story gets better when the remaining girls become his new gun-toting crew. I liked that concept and it started off with promise. The sequence that features the Britney Spears song is exceptional and easily one of the film's standout moments. Unfortunately, as this all sets up, the movie sinks back down into misstep after misstep. Again, this is because of the lack of interest in the protagonists, but also with where the episodic narrative takes us next and how it enters this new territory without enough fleshing out to the point that it lacks exposition. It starts to go into some New Jack City/King of New York territory which I liked, but it just brushes through what is nothing more than a weak subplot trying to be much more, and after Franco's femme gang is established, the rest of the characters introduced are nothing. Franco's character tells us who's important, but Korine fails to convince of this. There is still some terrific imagery towards the end and the neon black light sequence of them traveling by boat and boarding the dock is another standout moment in the film that reminded me heavily of Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void.
Then it quickly turns disappointingly anti-climactic. I have no problem with anti-climactic endings, and this one might have actually worked, but yet again I must repeat myself in saying that the lack of personality with zero emotional investment in these girls led the peak of Spring Breakers toward a downhill slope.
I would still recommend this, but even more importantly, I recommend not buying into all the hype around it beforehand and I'm honestly surprised by the constant perfect/near perfect scores I've been seeing on here lately. Spring Breakers is a film that rises, peaks and falls. It's such a shame, because when it does peak, I was having a load of fun with it and my interest was high, but taking out the one sympathetic character too early, having the other three be so bland, dull, uninteresting, annoying and unable to carry the remainder, as well as a severely lacking attempt at telling what could have been an entertaining and intriguing story, brought this film down too much for me. Harmony Korine has a great eye as a visual artist and I look forward to his future films, but I do hope he finds a talented screenwriter to tell the stories he wants to direct from now on. Once again, he has proven that his lack in that area is his undoing.