A quartet of not-so-innocent undergraduates plans a much-desired sojourn away from their uninspired middle-American liberal arts campus, all the way down to the crucible of consumptive living: spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida. While there, the four young women learn a series of life lessons, in turns more intensive as their extended vacation rolls on. They meet a local drug dealer, Alien, who is, at first, seedy, to say the least. They become closer (“motha-fuckin’ soul mates,” according to him), attracted by his gangster lifestyle and the, again, consumptive trappings of his prototypical American masculinity, but he becomes surprisingly more than the mere stereotype for which we at first see.
The quartet—three fake blondes and a brunette—are Brit, Candy, Cotty, and Faith, played respectively by Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine, and Selena Gomez. Faith, true to her name, is a practicing Christian, and the first of the group to bail. She can’t handle one day hanging with Alien and his crew, and she quickly boards a bus for home. Faith’s tolerance to her innocence being put in jeopardy ends somewhere just beyond cocaine and liquor with college boys, Alien’s rough and tumble crowd has her in tears as well. The other three, meanwhile, remain.
Faith, though, is the most spiritual of the four, and it’s her voice we hear over many of the early, mesmerizing sequences (beautifully shot on 35mm by Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie). She invokes her spiritual connection with “spring break,” a time and place that, to her, is so much more than the sum of its scantily clad parts. And as funny as that seems (spring break as a spiritual place?!), she is not wrong. Whatever we are doing in our lives, we are learning lessons. There is always growth—always a takeaway. Faith emerges from that scalding crucible with wisdom unknown to her before. Without experience, without action, how might we become more than what we are?
Another perceived irony—at first—is the topic of the lecture that Brit and Candy sit through in the film’s first act while daydreaming about Florida parties. It’s about the roots of the civil rights movement in America. How perfectly ridiculous that these apathetic students, to say the least, are so overly concerned with their vacation that they are completely oblivious to the resonance and meaning of this essential part of our cultural history. Yet Harmony Korine is no judgmental commentator. Instead, he’s much more an explorer of the meaning beyond irony. We progress, as the lecturer implies, as a culture. By the time of Cotty’s eventual flight—this time after a bullet wound in the arm during a gunfight between Alien and a gangster nemesis, Archie (played well by rapper Gucci Mane)—we start to understand this process of testing ourselves.
This is precisely what makes Alien, played by a remarkable James Franco (in one of his best roles ever), such a rounded and profound character. At first he’s the antithesis to these sorority types, and then he becomes a model to them—heroic even. Yet it’s not until he is pushed to the edge of his own comfort that we see him as a real person. He is the thugged out, bling wearing, gun toting bastion of manhood that our world of hypermedia craves, but the girls bring out another side to him. Upon Cotty’s injury, he experiences a paternal need to protect, not just destroy. He experiences an urge to care for someone other than himself, as does his rival Archie. When we are tested, we learn from our experiences, and we start to become more complete people.
There is endless T & A, liquor, and other debauchery. Nearly every sequence either starts or ends with a nice-ass-in-a-bikini shot. The most beautiful people populate a number of beautiful beaches, amazingly none with sunburns. Slow motion abounds. Harmony Korine is like an art-house Tarantino, the way he packs every sequence with as many cool and interesting elements as possible. But hear this: you may come in for the tits, but you’ll stay for the experience.