Provocateur: It’s such a loaded, even lazy, term. It might seem to apply to Spring Breakers writer/director Harmony Korine more than most filmmakers. After all, he’s the guy whose career launched as a teenager with the script for Larry Clark’s incendiary teens-in-trouble opus Kids, and whose output has included a movie about pranksters roaming the streets humping trash cans (fittingly titled Trash Humpers). Even in his short films, he does stuff like making his “protagonists” wheelchair-bound South Africans in footie pajamas on a shooting spree.
The presumption of empty provocation surrounding Korine’s work — the idea that he’s basically daring you to keep watching, and doesn’t have a thought in his head beside goosing his audience — might lead to reading Spring Breakers in all the wrong ways. Indeed, his opening sequence — a slow-motion parade of young bodies on the beach, flashing bare skin while dancing, beer-bonging and simulating plenty of illegal-in-multiple-states sex acts — feels like a brazen dare.
That impression continues with the casting of his four lead actresses as a quartet of college friends who desperately want to head to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. Troublemaking ringleaders Candy and Brit are played by High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens and Pretty Little Liars’ Ashley Benson, respectively; Disney Channel ingenue Selena Gomez plays the Bible-studying Faith. Korine casts his own wife, Rachel, as Cotty, the final member of the four. Ah, what a marketing tease: Come on in and see your innocent pop-culture dream girls lose their innocence.
But Spring Breakers isn’t about losing innocence — it’s about losing a grip on reality. Early on, as the girls realize that their collected financial resources aren’t enough to get them to Florida, Candy, Brit and Cotty decide to rob a restaurant with squirt guns to make up the difference. “Pretend like it’s a videogame,” Candy recommends before they go, “like you’re in a movie.”
And when we eventually see the way the heist went down — Korine initially shoots it from a distance, as Cotty circles the scene of the crime in the getaway car — we realize that they are playing the kind of badasses they’ve seen in media. They use the conventions of one kind of fantasy world to enable them to get to another one.
The problem with that fantasy world, as Spring Breakers unfolds, isn’t so much that it exists, but that those who dive in want it to exist without limits. As they revel in their party nights, the girls start to talk about never wanting to leave, about abandoning the tedious life they left behind to live together in paradise. “Spring break forever” becomes a kind of mantra, a desire for a perpetual life of consequence-free pleasures — living 24/7 in that opening montage of sun, sex and flaming youth.