This movie inspired a lot of controversy when it came out and it’s easy to see why. Korine wrote Larry Craig’s Kids and wrote and directed Gummo and those are a couple of extremely controversial films in their own right. In this film, four college girls head to Florida for Spring Break and slowly tumble into a spiral of anarchic, amoral behavior. In a bit of purposely perverse casting, the girls are played by Disney princesses: Selena Gomez, Venessa Hudgens & Ashley Benson (the fourth is Korine’s own wife, Rachel). Once in Florida, they fall under the sway, or perhaps it’s the other way around, of cosmic rapper Alien, played by James Franco in a genuine tour de force. People seemed divided on whether or not the film glorifies violence and materialism and misogyny or critiques those things. Our four barely legal ladies spend essentially the entire film showing more skin than they’re covering up and I’m pretty sure this is intended to make the audience uncomfortable (and, frankly, it does). Korine isn’t interested in turning the audience on; he’s interested in turning the audience on and then making the audience feel ashamed about it, which is an interesting level to be working on, if it’s not quite as smart as it might seem.
I think the main thing that’ll decide you on this film is Korine’s style. He has an eye for astonishing visuals; the colors are vibrant and they just soak the screen in a visceral, astonishing way. But with his looping electronic score and the intense focus on visuals, the film loses sight of its characters and any sense of real emotional connection. The film is elliptical and meandering; scenes are purposely repetitive and oblique. In the commentary, Korine says he was aiming to creating a film that felt like a piece of repetitive looping electronic music. His style occasionally works. There’s a bravura sequence in which two of the girls rob a restaurant and we see the entire thing through the windows as a third girl slowly circles the restaurant in her car; it’s a single unbroken shot and must have been a bitch to choreograph, but it lands like a ton of bricks. Later, there’s an astonishing scene of Franco playing the piano and singing a Britney Spears song as the girls dance on the beach at sunset; it’s a visceral, incredibly emotional scene. It shouldn’t work at all, but it’s really gorgeous and Franco’s performance comes through just right.
I think that’s maybe the lesson here. Franco is enough of a pro that he’s able to make his performance land; as much as I ultimately didn’t care for this movie, there are shots of Franco in this film that I think I’ll never forget and the fate of his character was genuinely emotionally effecting. It’s about Franco being able to force his character through Korine’s frustratingly oblique and esoteric style. In this movie, you have to work at it if you want something as traditional as your character’s emotional journey to be seen by an audience that’s being dazzled by Korine’s visual pyrotechnics. I think the four girls just don’t have that strength yet as actors; at times, they’re really pretty bad and they never make their characters come alive. It was over forty minutes into the film before I could tell three of them apart (Selena Gomez has dark hair so she stood out; Rachel Korine has pink hair, I finally figured out, but it looks blond). That should tell you just how distancing the style is and just how little the film actually cares about building the girls as characters. They’re supposed to be some kind of archetypes, I think: the bored teenagers going bad. But the film just feels sloppy in those areas and it’s hard to resign yourself to an hour and a half with these girls when you don’t know them and certainly don’t give a **** about them.
I think, ultimately, that’s my take on the film. The visuals are breathtaking at times and the film is stylish in an intriguing way. And the film is certainly critiquing modern American culture. But it’s possible to do all those things and also tell an engaging story with richly drawn characters and unfortunately Korine doesn’t care about those last two things at all. It’s sort of the definition of soulless, in my opinion. At only ninety minutes, it feels twice that length and it’s a film I just can’t recommend, not even with Franco’s astonishing, genuinely great performance as Alien. Too bad; Korine has a very personal aesthetic and I feel that he made exactly the film he wanted to make. But maybe work on making us care next time. Recommended against. 2 stars.
tl;dr – visually gorgeous and featuring a bravura performance from James Franco, this film still fails to engage; the four central characters are bland & overwhelmed by the ultimately soulless aesthetic; there’s no reason to care really. 2 stars.