It is rare that a movie about youth is suffuse with the elements that we associate with the same – impetuousness, energy, ennui, anger, violence, unpredictability, and self-reflection. Usually any film that tries to portray the more sordid aspects of youth culture comes off as exploitative, or removed, or woefully misinformed. Yet here you come like a neon explosion of bravado and madness to show the world the highs and lows of the new youth experience. At the outset you announce yourself with gratuitous bombast, obscene displays of depravity and lust which terminates with a sudden crash into normalcy, beginning a rhythm of rise and fall that will echo throughout your narrative, just as it does in all human experience.
It’s a bold and frankly stunning tact for a film to take with such a pat, seemingly ridiculous story. Four friends from childhood find themselves languishing in the stultifying sameness of their college lives, desperate to make a bold escape so they can finally see something new and become who they really are. This concept, the idea of escape and self-actualization, is a particular youthful ideal that never fully leaves us, and yet these young women exist in a nothing-to-lose kind of world wherein their own selves are the most important element, and thus they can excuse themselves from societal norms in the pursuit of the rush of their true reality.
This leads three of them – Cotty (Rachel Korine), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), to rob a local restaurant, in a scene that plays up the disparity between the pretty, small young women and the violence they use to get what they want. Only later on, when they stage a recreation of the act to the absent member of their party, Faith (Selena Gomez), does the real meaning and the true impact of that robbery come to the fore, leading to a sudden shift from the booze-sodden debauchery we had seen previously into the more mortally terrifying depths plumbed by the local gangster, Alien (James Franco).
This may all sound like nothing but madcap camp, and while you do approach that, you know better that than to let yourself slip so deep that your themes and characters cease to be taken seriously. Each of these young women represents a different aspect of our pop culture view towards womanhood, and each of them responds to the evolving situation in a way that is not only consistent with that archetype, but with the character created within it. Selena Gomez in particular impresses as Faith, the church-going young woman who has been blind to the growing violence and immorality of her friends. Her eventual breakdown is heartrending and raw, an expression of fear not only for herself, but for the lives and wellbeing of her friends. And their reactions hold up their same party-girl attitude, at first gently prodding her to join them in their descent, and then feigning sorrow when she refuses, all the while still carrying the energy of people waiting for the fun to begin again, unimpeded.
Cotty is the archetypical tease, never going all the way but reveling in the act of dancing close to the fire. She can bear Candy and Brit so long as the fun remains and the danger stays remote, but once stakes are introduced and the reality of the situation becomes inescapable her commitment flags. Alien, meanwhile, is all posture and pomp without the muscle to back up his claims. Garnished in guns and cash, he is nonetheless only as experienced as Cotty, though much more willing to carry his charade to the end. He’s a strangely sweet, deceptively cunning character, and Franco uses him to more than redeem himself from the debacle of Oz the Great and Powerful.
The manner in which these very real, very engrossing characters intertwine and collide is fascinating, as is the way your writer and director, Harmony Korine, displays them in the narrative, acting as a kind of amphetamine- and neon-infused Terrence Malick. Montages backed up by high energy dubstep give us the dizzying highs available to those who chase sun and drugs and booze. Meanwhile, conversations loop again and again in quieter moments, as though the speakers themselves are trying to feel out the words, trying them on and making them fit. Scenes are edited together with the beginning of the next scene, creating a subtle weave between sequences that draws up the same experience as thinking back on one moment while living in the moment that followed it. Past, present, and future coexist in the mind, and these women – who are hurtling through this spring break so fast and yet seemingly languishing in it for months – are experiencing all of these moments in a mash of confusion and clarity.
The key to you, though, if there can only be one, is the aforementioned scene wherein the girls who took part in the robbery reenact their heist for Faith. This scene, which takes place in a parking lot at night, is subtly terrifying and wholly organic, the kind of scene that moviegoers should be talking about all year, not only for what it accomplished in terms of base narrative momentum, but in how suddenly it relights our opinion of the entire tone of the first act. What once was absurd and comedic is suddenly fierce and raw, placing the audience firmly in the perspective of Faith, challenging our perception of what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
There are no shortage of moments both joyous and worrying, real and surreal within your narrative. The best way to see you, I’m sure, is with only the barest inkling as to your plot, the better to lose oneself in the hyperactive madness. That said, even though I’ve seen you already and know all of the twists and turns and surprises in store, I cannot wait to spend another heady, blissfully insane holiday with you.
Spring break forever indeed,
Brian J. Roan