Like most people who are into dark social commentary and hyped-up movies about fucked-up people, I saw Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers this week, the director’s latest foray into arty cinema starring drug-addled youths. I expected to hate it. The pre-premiere interviews and feature articles all focused on the same, tired points: Ex-Disney stars lose their innocence, break out of comfort zones/show they can “really act,” get naked and do drugs on screen! James Franco in cornrows! It was almost enough to make me not see it, except that, like most people, I was far too intrigued to avoid it.
But I didn’t hate it. Actually, I loved it. Despite a slow, stop-start first half hour—the dream state atmosphere Korine was going for with way too many “flashbacks” to scenes that happened minutes before was disjointed and annoying— and moments of disconnected cheesiness—no girl, no matter how “badass” or bored, would ever draw a heart over the words I ❤ Penis on a piece of paper and hold it up to her friend during a lecture—the point was, well, on point: Kids these days, just as Chloe Sevigny & Co demonstrated in 1993, are fucked up. And you don’t understand, couldn’t possibly understand, the half of it, unless you too have been in any sort of comparable experience.
Which is why everyone else, including most media outlets and critics, seems to have missed Korine’s very valid point: Because very few people older than the current twenty-something demographic who can relate to what they see on the screen. Sitting in the sizeable, completely packed theatre in Union Square, I was surrounded by two types of people: The people who laughed, and the people who did not.
The former is perfectly represented by the the group of middle-age (“culturally aware”) group of friends behind me, and the large guffawing middle-America-type woman in front of me. People over the age of thirty, attending because either A) they read about it in New York Magazine and saw Kids once and needed to be able to hold a discussion at this week’s dinner party or around the office, or B) they saw the trailer, saw sex and drugs, and figured it would be highly entertaining.
All of these people thought James Franco’s grill-wearing, ghetto white boy Alien was hilarious. True, it was very, very difficult to stifle laughter for the first 5 minutes he was on-screen—you can’t have that man say things like “drank” and “we do it dirty” in a hood Southern accent and expect us to let it slide right away. But, if you are a proper movie-goer, you suspend your disbelief to enjoy the film. Most of these people never did so. The “Look at all my stuff!” scene, where Alien jumps on a bed wielding machine guns and throwing bricks of dope and wads of cash into the air (a la a 2013 drug-dealing Jay Gatsby, as the Times noted) issued riotous laughter. He’s so silly! When Alien sits down at his white baby grand in the middle of a waterfront backyard to play Britney Spears ‘Everytime’—a song which he told New York Magazine was “a condensed pop version of what I wanted to do with the movie… really eerie, kind of glossy and airless and haunting” (so, uh, pretty important for the film)—while his three bathing-suit clad collegiate hit women dance around with shotguns and pink face masks, giggles reverberate up and down the rows. They’re so weird!
That laughter gave them away. They didn’t really get the deeper commentary: On the insurmountable materialism of people whose sole desire is to earn money for “more stuff,” and whose primary means of doing so is by stealing or selling illicit substances; On the double-speak often invoked by men like Alien who are used to getting all the nice things they can flash a wad of bills at, including girls they bail out of jail; On the bleak emptiness of life for girls like Candy and Cotty and Brit, bored and poor and futureless, looking for something to liven them up even if it involves live ammunition; On the tendency of teenagers to treat everything, including their own life, like a game.
The people who didn’t laugh—my friend and myself, the myriad groups of other twenty-somethings and teens in the audience—understood these points. Throughout most of the film, we were silently digesting, recognizing too-familiar scenarios on the screen. Afterwards, my friend and I discussed parallels over a cigarrette. She’s been to spring break in Florida, and what Korine depicted in the opening sequence was identical, if not actually tamer, than her experience. I grew up in a tourist trap beach town, familiar with underage substance abuse as well the sketchy undergrowth of people like Alien and his crew that those areas breed. We’d both seen friends and classmates succumb to drugs and guns, drop out of school to live a perpetual party that’s much more sad and hollow than it is fun. The scenes of Cotty (Korine’s wife, Rachel) trying to guzzle beer poured down her throat by a group of guys and nearly vomiting on herself in the process can be found at nearly every college party. Currently, my hometown public high school has an issue with its students dealing heroin.
No one of us laughed because Spring Brekaers is pretty spot-on satire. No, we don’t know anyone who has used their spring break to move in with a dealer and go on a murder spree. But the underlying bleakness is almost too relatable. There are, without a doubt, kids in the iPhone generation with tar-colored souls and nothing to lose. By contrast, those theatre gigglers outside of our demographic, while not without generational dark spots of their own, aren’t on the same page as these lost little girls; girls who are young enough to be their daughters.
Whether you’re a fan of Korine and his less-than-subtle social commentary or not isn’t the issue. It’s learning to digest a phenomenon you don’t understand instead of shrugging it off as a joke.