'Spring Breakers' is Not as Ironic as You Think

[The following article contains some spoilers.]

There’s a scene about mid-way through "Spring Breakers" that functions as a kind of litmus test for understanding the film’s motivations. Drug-dealing rap king Alien (James Franco) is found idling poolside at his ivory-white grand piano, casting spare notes out into the beachfront ether, when he is joined by a trio of nubile gat-toting girls, their three gleaming bodies now adorned with neon bikinis and hot-pink balaclavas. “Play us something f**kin’ inspiring”, they request, and Alien happily obliges: the three break into “Everytime”, the mid-2000s pop ballad by Britney Spears, which segues into an entirely wordless montage of bodies and bullets in motion, the Disney gang beating and blasting their way through the city’s stash houses in glorious slow-motion.

The scene seems fairly transparent: imposing an upbeat or saccharine song over incongruously dark imagery is a tactic of aesthetic reappropriation as shopworn as it is superficial, reaching its pique of effectiveness in "Reservoir Dogs" and becoming little more than a cheap hack-art device in the two decades since. It’s a simplistic gimmick, one whose purpose, other than eliciting a light laugh, is often to somehow “expose” the vacuity of the song in question, undermining the schmaltzy faux-grandeur of mainstream music by casting it in relief against something graphic and real. In this case it’s a weepy Spears serenade and a catalog of thefts and assaults.

But while this sequence has an obvious (and obviously effective) dimension of humor, it is far from the scathing pop culture critique one might expect of the juxtaposition. Rather than employ irony as a means to undermine the sincerity of an earnest pop song, this scene—like so much in this film—is itself intended to be taken seriously, drawing out and underlining rather than simply satirizing the beauty of the proceedings. The point, I think, is actually to celebrate “Everytime”, to suggest that its sentiment, while ostensibly maudlin, is nevertheless quite wonderful on its own terms; Benoit Debie’s sumptuous photography embellishes the aesthetic rather than rejecting it.

“Everytime” is quite literally “f**kin’ inspiring”, an endearingly mawkish ballad ideally suited to the overall tenor of the film, which values sincerity over fashionable distance. That’s maybe the biggest hurdle for anyone skeptical of Korine’s intentions throughout the film: his apparent desire to indulge in the visceral pleasures of his chosen milieu doesn’t quite sit right with the compulsion to ruthlessly deconstruct its insipidness. It seems like a fundamental contradiction of terms until you realize that Korine might not be interested in satirizing at all.

"Spring Breakers" is not a satire. Which doesn’t mean, either, that he’s approaching the material entirely in earnest or that he’s condoning the beachside debauchery without a critical eye. But to perceive in the look and feel of "Spring Breakers" the sensibility of a dedicated ironist is to misread the character of the film, which is less interested in irony than in its very pointed absence. What’s most remarkable about Spring Breakers at all times is just how seriously it takes itself and its protagonists, whose oblique pursuit of the American dream and gleeful appropriation of pop/rap signifiers is presented more as a process of empowerment than it is a descent into hedonism.

It’s significant that the film seems headed, in its early scenes, toward the distressing resolution of a classical “corrupted innocence” narrative, particularly when Alien enters the picture and our four attractive leads appear primed for self-destruction (one important thing rarely discussed in the context of the film, strangely, is how the spectre of rape continues to loom over the proceedings without ever actually occurring). The premise which guides the first half of the movie—four nominally virginal girls are taken in by a menacing older male whose lifestyle begets danger—is the stuff cautionary tales are made of, and it’s not hard to imagine an alternate third act in which the girls succumb to the destitution exerting itself on them and take a long hard fall to utter failure (or worse). That would retroactively recast the iconography as essentially ironic: the misleadingly glamorous life of spring break suddenly seems foreboding and toxic, an influence leading to tragedy. But that’s not how the action plays out. At all.

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The turnabout is key, though few seem to have recognized its significance: when the girls turn on Alien in the middle of the film and force him to fellate their guns, they are effectively reasserting their control over their own narratives, claiming agency for themselves as characters and redirecting the course of the film to come. That the girls go on to not only follow Alien in his pursuit of gangland control, but actually supersede him transforms them into superheroes of their own design, young women beating men at the game they think they’ve already won; far from being “corrupted”, these girls do the corrupting. They’re assertive where Alien is afraid and weak; by the time they raid Gucci Mane’s mansion in the film’s climactic bloodbath, the man with them proves entirely useless, shot in the head before he has a chance to start. This isn’t a film about losing innocence (the girls commit armed robbery at the beginning) so much as it’s a film about finding something with which to replace it. That’s ironic only insofar as it’s quite conspicuously not what we expect, but it’s not ironic in the way some people seem to think.

There’s a brief exchange earlier in the film that sums it up: “Are you being serious right now?”, Faith asks Alien after he talks up his lavish lifestyle, bragging of being a gangsta. Alien smiles in close-up before winking out an answer: “What do you think?”