There are a lot of ways four college girls might choose to fund a spring break trip. Scrupulously saving cash, picking up extra jobs on the side, asking their parents for help… or holding up a local restaurant using squirt guns, ski masks, and an El Camino stolen from a professor. Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Faith (Selena Gomez) are four friends who, feeling stifled by their stale college town, are willing to go the extra mile to ensure that they get the spring break they want. After robbing the Chicken Shack for cash, the girls take a bus down to Florida, where they partake in nonstop drunken revelry.
The partying these girls engage in is truly a spectacle, and director Harmony Korine feasts upon it, taking it all in with gorgeous, languid shots. Boys pour beer over girls’ bare breasts; teenagers jump up and down, screaming; alcohol rains down and brightly colored plastic paraphernalia abounds. It’s a world of decadence and reckless abandon, and it’s so gracefully filmed that one can’t help but be mesmerized by it. The film is a collage of different shots laced together by music and dialog, never completely anchored to one moment, and the effect is both seductive and nightmarish.
Brit, Candy, Cotty and Faith are clearly experienced partygoers, but we know virtually nothing else about them. Faith is a Christian and more innocent than the other three, but the girls are otherwise devoid of identities and almost indistinguishable from each other. The location of their school is also never specified, and they have vague southern accents that come and go depending on the scene. In a sense, it doesn’t matter who they are or where they’re coming from; they are dipping into an alternate reality where they can leave those things behind.
The girls are also a peculiar combination of childlike and hyper-adult. They are petite, their faces round, their giggles girlish, and Korine made the notable choice of casting two former Disney Channel stars as Faith and Candy: Gomez of the sitcom Wizards of Waverly Place and Hudgens of the High School Musical trilogy. With Disney, these actresses maintained wholesome, youthful reputations — and now we see them scantily clad, handling weapons, snorting cocaine. It is a jarring, almost hysterical sight. As they laugh and scream and party, the four girls come across as children playing at adulthood, drunk on their own autonomy, with no sense of responsibility or consequences.
It’s not until the girls are arrested for use of cocaine that they are hit by the repercussions of their actions. “Why is this happening?” Faith’s voiceover laments. “We were just having fun, we didn’t do anything wrong.” Serendipitously, the girls are bailed out by a gangster who calls himself Alien (James Franco), and their spring break swings in a new direction. Franco is almost unrecognizable with his cornrows and grills, and he exudes a goofy sincerity that makes him strangely likeable. He takes an immediate liking to the girls — “I think I just fell in love with y’all” — and welcomes them into his opulent world of drugs and violence. While Faith is reluctant, the other three are titillated by the change of pace. They seem to be willing to try anything, viewing this trip as totally isolated from their real lives.
This is an arresting, vivid, and poignant picture of the college-going youth of America. The narrative is absurd, a caricature, but there is some real truth to it. Korine is taking a good look at American “spring break” culture: this phenomenon of thousands of college students spilling onto America’s beaches, wreaking havoc, and returning to their schools as if nothing has happened. The film presents a world that feels more like a fever dream than anything else — a world in which young girls can shed their identities, brandish guns and indulge in power fantasies without repercussions. And while scenes are cut with Alien’s murmuring, “Spring break… spring break… spring break forever,” it’s a significantly transient world; whatever damage these girls do will be left in their wake when they hop on the bus to go home.