The Diffusion of Responsibility

Talking about my country’s cultural aspirations, George Carlin once joked that “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Just about everyone is blissfully zonked out in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, an absurd meta-pop film that simultaneously critiques and celebrates American hedonism, violence and general irresponsibility in its most hilariously desperate and depressing form: through the eyes of college girls, in Tampa Beach, sometime in March. Want to know what mainstream youth culture looks like in America? Watch this film.

Spring Breakers follows four young bombshells (Candy, Faith, Brit, and Cotty) who rob a chicken shack with squirt guns and ski masks in order to fund a last-minute spring break trip to the Florida coast. “Pretend like it’s a video game” one of them says. “Act like you’re in a movie.” This advice isn’t specific to the robbery, it’s a mantra for their entire way of life. No one seems to have a clue who they are, and no one takes responsibility for their actions. It’s a familiar feeling.

Korine is obsessed with America’s glorification of sex, violence, drugs, and how those components shape individual identity. Like Kids, Spring Breakers is focused on a group of young people (mostly women) who don’t know where they fit in, trying to be cool, exhausting the possibilities. Each character attempts to be something they’re not, with humiliating and sobering consequences. The film isn’t realistic (nor is it meant to be), but it’s characters’ desires are.

After going broke and getting busted for snorting cocaine at a random party, the girls wind up in jail and are bailed out (financially and legally) by a drug dealer/rapper named Alien (played to a tee by James Franco). “Some kids want to be president, others want to be a doctor,” he tells his new friends by way of introduction. “I just want to be baaad.” Alien is not bad. But he is rich, free from the burdens of work or school, and living alone in a big mansion on the beach full-time. In his world, as he likes to say, it’s “Spring Break forever.” But what does that mean, exactly?

Alien’s got everything the girls want, but the problem is that they want the wrong things. But there’s something missing. Alien is all image and no substance, a sharp warning of the type of person you end up becoming when “having shit” becomes your motivating goal in life. Alien needs an audience to justify his existence, but he has no friends. He has the guns and the ego to point them at his rival drug dealer (played by Gucci Mane), but not the heart to use them, which turns out to be a fatal flaw. Paradoxically, the girls have the heart to hang with Alien, but only because they’re too stupid and media-saturated to know just what it is they’re getting into. They think that’s what they should be doing, which might just be the real lesson here. Take Spring Breakers literally, as many critics have, and you’re sure to be offended. Take it as satire, as you should, and you’ll be amused at the cultural introspection lying beneath the glossy surface.

Lane Koivu