When Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” premiered at the Venice Film Festival late last August, it was received warmly by critics well-prepared for another provocation from one of the American cinema’s most reliably incensing auteurs. Its reception at the Toronto International Film Festival a week later seemed even more enthusiastic, with many critics, myself included, feeling certain that it ranked among the best of the slate.
That was nearly eight months ago now, and in the down time since its premiere, the hype machine has worked quite a number of “Spring Breakers”, raising anticipation to a fever pitch. The film’s distributor, A24 Films, made the savvy decision to wait until spring break itself kicked off to bring the film into wide release, which very quickly proved a lucrative strategy: its opening weekend, when it played a handful of theaters in only New York and Los Angeles, broke records for per-theater numbers, outgrossing Korine’s last film in a single day, and the combined sum of every movie he's ever made by the end of the weekend.
“Spring Breakers” stars a trio of immensely popular teen idols whose lucrative brand has clearly meant big business for the film. But it’s also unabashedly an arthouse film, one whose canny use of Disney icons is central to its deeper intentions; it so thoroughly deconstructs preconceptions that it wouldn’t much work without them. A major consequence of its motives—and in particular its desire to both relish and undermine certain cultural signifiers—is that its veneer of carefree spring breaking is pretty misleading, especially to audiences familiar with the stars but not with the director (whose most recent feature is called "Trash Humpers").
At its core, “Spring Breakers” is interested in a lot of the same ideas and aesthetic strategies as Korine’s last film, “Trash Humpers”, which also struggled in earnest to locate the sublime in the repulsive. But “Trash Humpers” had a much more cleanly demarcated idea of repulsion, and what constitutes ugly in that film—everything from its antiheroes on down—is a far cry from what constitutes ugly in “Spring Breakers”, which, rather than examining an underseen nightlife niche, zeroes in on the scattered refuse of a bankrupt popular culture.
In other words, it’s easy to get the wrong idea of what “Spring Breakers” is all about, and it’s not hard to fault mainstream audiences from assuming, based on the premise alone, that the film has little on its mind beyond embellishing its own frivolity. The film’s marketing totally reinforces the misconception: from the thousand-word treatise I wrote on the film after seeing it at TIFF, the studio selected two for the film’s trailer: “Enormously Entertaining”.
It’s surely easier to sell an arthouse film as enormously entertaining than it is to highlight the fact that, say, “the vapidity of this milieu is deeply criticized”, which I wrote in the same review. But in a weird way, this marketing angle—with which the studio is pulling a bit of a bait and switch on America’s unaware youth—dovetails nicely with the film’s themes, drawing in teens wanting some mindless entertainment and delivering something considerably more substantial. And it makes Korine both a kind of cinematic troll (pranking kids with a helping of Michael Mann and Terrence Malick) and a weird sort of hero, smuggling an arthouse film with serious ambitions into multiplexes by selling it as a teen comedy.
Now that the film has finally entered wide release, we can turn to the endless echo chamber of Twitter to see how America’s youth feel about Korine’s endeavor to educate. So far its reception by the mainstream has been...less than encouraging. Some kids don’t seem to quite understand what the maestro was up to, as evidenced by searching for “Spring Breakers” and “made sense”:
The kids didn’t seem to appreciate the film’s free-form narrative and cyclical editing, complaining that the film’s dialectical approach to an indictment and celebration of contemporary culture “made no sense at all”. Fair enough.
Another recurring complaint among teenagers was that the film’s critical approach to white privilege and the appropriation of racial iconography was “stupid”, as seen here:
As you can see, “BieberSerbia” thought that the end, which posits embracing artifice as an act of liberation and reclamation of personal agency, was “kinda stupid”. Harsh but fair, BieberSerbia.
Others simply found the proceedings “boring”, possibly because the specific cultural signifiers with which the film engages had a dimension of obvious superficiality:
“Lola” describes the film’s explication of interior fantasy “so weird”, criticizing the film’s recurring motifs as “really repetitive and boring”. “Wontonjon” claims he “fell asleep that’s how boring it was”, possibly believing it derivative of Korine’s earlier work.
More disconcertingly, several teens went right for the hyperbole, singling “Spring Breakers” out as the worst film ever made.
These four cut straight to the chase: “BelieberLAxo” is particularly brutal, calling it “the worst movie I have ever seen”, no doubt finding its engagement with youth culture distasteful and its racial politics problematic. I think this is a fundamental misread, but don't take it from me. I think @BiebersSel, an obviously unbiased source, sums up the issues with social media's response to the film, while at the same time offering hope that the film might one day be critically reevaluated by the same people who have been so quick to condemn it: