Posted on 02 April 2013.
‘Spring Breakers’ Review: Disney Starlets, James Franco and Gangsterism
“I dreamt that I was hard.” – Dres on “U Mean I’m Not?”
Those are the last words on the first track of the debut album, “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” by Black Sheep, a rap duo making up a part of the Native Tongues Collective alongside A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and many others. “U Mean I’m Not?” is your introduction to the group and their music. Dres starts off in a gruff voice waking up in a bad mood. His first task is putting together his AK-47 and grabbing his “Rambo knife off the floor.” He bursts into his sister’s room for using his toothbrush, beats her up and shoots her. He goes downstairs for breakfast to find his mom has screwed it up, breaking his egg yolk. The penance? A bullet to the temple. His dad protests. He shoots him in the groin. He runs into the postman on the way out and slices his throat. All before waiting for the school bus to arrive. As you can see from the last line, this all happened in a dream. Being hard is not at all what Dres is about. And if you stick around for the track immediately following it, “Butt in the Meantime,” the bouncy rhythm is accompanied by the first words, “It’s times like this, that I’ve gotta crack a smile.” Hardly the words of anyone who purports to be hard.
Dres, Black Sheep and the opening song of “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” is a joke for what listeners would come to know of them and what they’re about. It’s a comment on the rampant gangsta rap running through hip-hop culture at the time. They were pretending to fall in line as a goof, only to turn an about-face and present themselves for who they really were. Meanwhile, in the actual gangsta rap arena established in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, flaunting your thuggish, gangster-ish qualities like drug dealing and gun clapping was the way to establish your authority. Though I don’t know the etymology of the term “studio gangster” and its first utterance, the earliest moment I’m aware of its use is by Eazy-E, directed toward his one-time N.W.A. groupmate, Dr. Dre, on his “Real Muthaphukkin’ G’s.” The implication was that Dre only purports to have been a gangster when inside a recording studio, but didn’t really live the life. Eazy-E was the genuine and authentic thing. This “more gangster than thou” (as “The Wire” creator, David Simon, once put it) attitude has continued through rap music and permeated pop culture up to now, through how many times 50 Cent had been shot, to Gilbert Arenas bringing guns into an NBA locker room and now to a group of girls on spring break in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers.”
As you might infer from the above paragraphs, I love rap music. I’m also a white suburban kid in his thirties. I’ve never seen a gun in real life, much less had one pointed at me or fired one in the direction of someone. I may have worn a Houston Colt .45s hat while walking my dog this morning, but it was accompanied by a Taylor Swift t-shirt (and in truth, the hat is partly because of the colors, but mainly because I love “Django Unchained,” its soundtrack, and this final song from it: http://youtu.be/AlZeceNfm5U). I’ve also never seen any drugs harder than marijuana or ones that came in a prescription bottle (in some cases, those things were combined). And if given the option to live my life without being witness to any of it, I’d be more than happy. Being hard is not in my nature, but I’d also never purport it to be. The girls in “Spring Breakers” didn’t necessarily purport to being hard-natured either, at least not initially.
Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) are in college, attending another in the long line of droning lectures being conveyed to them via powerpoint. Their focus isn’t remotely on the task at hand, but on the upcoming week off they’ll be getting in the form of Spring Break. Brit and Candy aren’t what most people would categorize as “good girls.” Brit takes hits from a vodka-loaded squirt gun. Candy takes bong rips of weed. They certainly appear to be tailor-made for the hard-partying debasement into debauchery a Spring Break vacation taken in Florida will afford to them. Unfortunately, “afford” is a key term.
Brit and Candy form together with friends Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife) and Faith (Selena Gomez) in attempt to pool their money together and just get away from their current lives for bit. For the aptly named, Faith, a church-going Christian warned of hanging out with Brit and Candy by friends at a faith group, getting away is really her only desire. She appears to mostly be a “good girl.” She smokes cigarettes, but so do the aforementioned church group friends. Getting involved with Brit and Candy, girls she’s known since kindergarten, is what can push her into other areas she may not be suited for. However, when adding up all the money between the four friends, they fall far short of a week-long Floridian trip and have to come about enough money by other means.
Money, Drugs, Hoes: Benson, Hudgens, Korine & Franco.
Brit, Candy and Cotty decide to rob a chicken shack. After a night of snorting cocaine, sucking back liquor and repeating mantras to themselves of pretending it’s like a video game and thinking of it like it’s a movie, they make their strike. Korine, the director, shoots the robbery from Cotty, the getaway driver’s, POV as she circles the building awaiting Brit and Candy’s return to the vehicle with squirt gun, hammer and mounds of cash, in tow. Because we as an audience don’t even hear the robbery and only catch glimpses through windows, when they flee the scene in celebration, it doesn’t seem so bad. Girls out for some relatively harmless fun. For us, it is still a movie.
Finally experiencing everything they dreamed in Florida, after a particularly illegal substance/booze-filled/furniture-destroying hotel room party, all attendees are arrested, including our felonious four females. Given the option at their sentencing of staying in jail for an additional 48 hours or paying their way out, their lack of money gives the collective only the former option. Their spring break is set to end behind bars until thye’re rescued by a guardian Alien (James Franco).
Until Franco gets involved in story, “Spring Breakers” is largely pointless. It’s a lot of montages of debauchery, drugging, drinking and driving around in scooters. The film is completely devoid of substance (aside from the literal) and very little characterization. This isn’t something that completely changes with the girls throughout the rest of the film, but Alien and Franco provide a badly needed jolt of narrative drive.
A tatted-up “white-boy” with dreads and a grill, perhaps manufactured by Paul Wall, are how Alien externally displays who he is. He has a rap song on YouTube. Like every good gangster rapper, he proclaims to have “Scarface” looping repeatedly. His bed is littered with bundles of drug money and assorted automatic weapons. It’s clear that he’s achieved his current life through means of his own, but how much remains somewhat unsaid. While Alien is able to scare off Faith, the others don’t go away. At one point, he has two guns stuck in his face and his gangster façade falls away until he resorts to disarming his captors in a way no gangster would dare dream up. Arcing throughout, Alien provides the girls with a sense of danger, idolization, whipping boy, sole mate and martyr. Alien needs the girls as much as they need him.
Franco is borderline brilliant in the role. Without him, the movie doesn’t (or at least, shouldn’t) exist. He gives Alien a vulnerability befitting a character who’s more about creating an exterior persona for fitting into what’s expected of him. He tells Candy and Brit they’re his solemates like a puppy in search of an owner. Though he probably feels he can drop the act with them, instead they force him to go even further with what for him may or may not be part of an act. They even ridicule him at one point, asking if he’s scared. And indeed he probably is.
Alien isn’t necessarily a studio gangster in every sense of the word. He does deal drugs. He does own guns. He does rob people and hurt them. However, there’s a sense that it isn’t completely innate. This is juxtaposed with his former best friend, now rival drug dealer, Archie (Gucci Mane), who certainly has the perma-high eyes and mumbled threatening speech you’d associate with a true thug. Alien, whose real name is Allen, can’t break from his past and now the girls certainly won’t let him do so, especially when Archie threatens Alien’s and their lives unless he backs off from his territory.
While Alien provides the hard exterior, but potentially candy-filled interior inside the film, I believe Selena Gomez is conjuring up the same act in real life. It’s understood why she and former “High School Musical” star, Hudgens, would flock to harder-edged material. It appears to be the sure-fire way of any former Disney star to be viewed by the public in a different light. Anne Hathaway decided to remove her clothes while starring in “Havoc” and “Brokeback Mountain” immediately after wrapping up “Princess Diaries 2” in order to distance herself from Disney wholesomeness. Nobody wants to be typecast. I understand that. For Hudgens, I believe starring in the film to be a less “important” step for her branching out. Now, I’d never seen her in anything (save for the infamous leaked photos a few years ago), so I don’t associate her with much of anything Disney. I believe even the public at large knows she’s not what most people would deem “a good girl,” purely based on the existence of those pictures. It’s not much of a shock to see her in something like “Spring Breakers.”
I believe Gomez had the much bigger hill to climb after just wrapping up “Wizards of Waverly Place” for the Disney channel last year. I agree that it would be shocking to any fans of her TV show to see this movie. But there’s a difference in being shocked by the content of a movie and being shocked by the content of a character. Gomez’ character, Faith, is the good girl. She’s the moral conscience of the film. She’s the one who goes to church. She’s not the one who robs the chicken shack. She’s the one who’s frightened by Alien. And she’s the one who exits the film halfway through its runtime. If she completely wanted to reinvent herself, she’d have played the Brit role or the more-extreme-in-a-way role of hard-partying Cotty. Instead, this feels like a half-measure.
I’m not saying Gomez should have chosen one of the other roles. Sure, it’s acting, but you still are who you are to a certain degree. Nobody hated Tom Hanks in “The Road to Perdition.” He killed people, but he was still the guy you were rooting for. He was absolutely the protagonist, if not the hero. What I’m saying is that I don’t believe being in this film, and having the role she did, will change much for Ms. Gomez. Until otherwise, I still believe her to be a “good girl.” After seeing “Spring Breakers” and it visualizing some of the actions you certainly were aware of taking place during that week-long absence from school, we need good, wholesome people in this world, too.
Some people really are hard. And for some, it’s just a dream.