Counterfeit Dreams: Volume 1: Spring Breakers

"[The American Dream is] that dream of a land in which life should be better and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."

                                                           -James Trustlow Adams. 1931. 

America Cinema is a totemic representation of the country itself.  Larger than life, prideful, and filled with occasional flashes of brilliance, American films have dominated the global celluloid landscape for decades.  While many contend that the bulk of American films lack the depth and artistry of foreign cinema, there is a sub-genre that challenges this notion.  There is a small, august fraternity of films that explore the dark side of the American Dream and the harsh truths that await multiple generations of youth in distress.  For the first volume in this ongoing series, Michelle and Kyle explore Harmony Korine's polarizing masterwork Spring Breakers.

The Neon Nightmare of Spring Breakers   

Kyle: In 2012, A24's third feature film, subversive auteur Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers released to mixed reviews. While it made many critics' top ten lists for the year, casual viewers, and other critics decried the film as exploitative and pointless, marred by a thread of meanness that courses through the heart of its narrative. Controversy erupted when a rapper claimed James Franco's character was modeled after him and several sites claimed the film portrayed young women as objects. Conversely, other critics felt a unique brand of feminism roiling under the candy colored surface of Korine's sun-soaked wasteland. The final result is a divisive film that highlights some uncomfortable truths about the culture of excess at the heart of America's privileged youths.  

Michelle: I remember being immediately mesmerized by this film and its pastel neon aesthetic. It languidly focuses on hedonism and unfettered sexual impulses as filtered through a haze of fuzzy editing and extended slow-motion sequences. I find the criticism of the women in Spring Breakers to be interesting because people like to espouse freedom for women on one hand, and then simultaneously shame them for expressing their sexual urges in the same breath. Are these women being exploited or are they just enjoying being young and sexually active? I can definitely see it being read as some sort of art-house version of Girls Gone Wild, but I feel the subtext is deeper than that.

Kyle:  Spring Breakers is an interesting animal.  It's always just shy of true offense and stews within its exploitative juices throughout.  I remember my first time seeing it and how uncomfortable I was.  When the floor of the dreamy first act falls away to a vicious shoreline cacophony, the darkness that runs through the center begins to reveal itself.  Spring break vacations for college students are notorious benchmarks of the university experience, but ultimately they are hollow celebrations of lives not yet mature enough to understand the danger that pervades them.  This concept is emulated with the four central characters.  

Michelle: I was a late bloomer and didn’t partake of the party lifestyle until I was in my early twenties. I feel that Spring Breakers encapsulated the “we are going to live forever” attitude that is so pervasive in young people. I think that is what makes people uncomfortable while watching it—especially older people. They know that these types of actions can have dire consequences and to see it treated so callously can seem irresponsible.

Kyle: Excellent point.  With respect to the lie of the American Dream, I think Spring Breakers is a bourgeoisie expose’ of the same chilling subject matter of American Honey.  These are middle to upper class young women who want to escape the prisons of normality that surround them.  As they delve further and further into the underworld, closer to their perceived ideas of personal freedom and evolved sexuality, half of them return to the "real" world" while the other two hedonistically go all in.   The idea that an entire generation is celebrating a dangerous philosophy in a sun drenched bacchanal is a disturbing revelation as the lethal twosome return to their Ivory Towers unscathed.

Michelle: There is definitely this idea of being the proverbial “good girl” in female dynamics and it’s always this stressful balance of wanting to have fun and express yourself but not do “too much” and ostracize yourself from the rest of the group. Women have a tendency to be judgmental of other women and will uphold the patriarchal status quo to make themselves look more desirable. I would say that this is more prevalent in groups of young women because social standings are infinitely more important to them. Many people might find the fact that the film doesn’t punish the “bad” girls who stay behind disconcerting and read it as an endorsement of some sort. I disagree with that idea as I feel that the film is much more clinical with their actions, almost documentary-like in its portrayal.

Kyle: While some of the allegories are surface level (Look at my shit!) there are some thought provoking ideas that Korine keeps in peripheral.  For instance, the juxtaposition of the women and Franco in the sex sequence could be viewed as a twist on female empowerment.  Two teenage white women killing scores of black criminals is somewhat prophetic given the current political climate in the country and this is perhaps why this is such an important film.  This is the Apocalypse Now of the current generation, eschewing unwanted wars, psychological trauma, and the horror of combat in favor of neon hellscapes of drug fueled revelry, parking lot renditions of Britney Spears, and casual violence with no consequences.  

Thank you for reading.  Michelle and Kyle will be back soon with Volume Two!

--Michelle Kisner & Kyle Jonathan