2012 was a year of big movies. With precious little exception, all of my top 10 movies were big; Big stories, big characters, big events, big acting. The year name even sounded impressive. Since the year turned, I’ve been looking for what 2013’s identity would be. But now that I’ve seen a few movies in 2013, I think I’ve identified its theme: 2013 is the year of the bizarre.
But on to the movie itself: Harmony Korine is a director I’ve never really liked. I’ve seen a total of two of his movies (Gummo and Trash Humpers…yes the second one is about exactly what it sounds like) and I initially dismissed him as John Waters with half the talent and a third the heart. But I’ve never been one to let my opinions about a director’s previous work cloud my judgment when it comes to a new movie they’ve made, and this is not only easily his best and most coherent work to take, it’s easily one of the most sneakily subversive and just plain great movies of the year so far.
The plot is concerned with four college girls (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) who are desperately awaiting Spring Break. When it arrives, they find themselves unable to afford it…so they rob a chicken joint in order to pay for it. The movie descends into a pretty fetishistic depiction of typical spring break debauchery, until the girls are arrested for drug possession. They are bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a drug dealer and aspiring rapper who wants to show them the real party. That’s when the real plot, and the real darkness of the film, begin.
What I think really sets this movie apart, aside from some unique direction, is the way it treats its characters. From the description, you’re probably assuming that James Franco’s character is a sexual predator, designed to punish their desire to party, but the movie is darker than that. Oh, Alien thinks that’s what he’s doing and Vanessa Hudgen’s character thinks he is too (as she exits the movie just about the time he arrives in it) but the eventual character interplay eventually turns into something completely different. I don’t want spoil the eventual character turns, but you’ll know when the movie has made it’s major turn.
And the character turns are what makes this movie highly unique. Despite it’s understanding and even empathizing with it’s characters (it’s awful, awful, awful characters) it never once feels the need to condone or condemn them. It just presents the leads and their idiocy and shallowness without commentary. And what’s worst is that none of them are pretending or putting up a facade. They really are this stupid and shallow, and the movie presents it in such a way to make it inescapable and horrifying.
The writing is solid, reflecting Korine’s ability to understand and write youth and features repeated lines and dialogue, in order to reinforce the character’s state of mind, slight changes in delivery altering what the line means at that moment. The direction is unique, especially in the weird sound editing (the number of shots that end with the sound of a gun cocking gets disconcerting) and interesting color scheme. The four leads appear to have been chosen based almost entirely on their Disney Channel pasts, in order to make the content of the film a little more disconcerting, which means they might not be the best suited to their roles. But they’re all pretty solid, especially Benson and Hudgens. But the really heavy lifting comes from Franco, who disappears into his despicable role in a way he really hasn’t before this.
I can’t promise everyone is gonna like this movie. I’m not certain this is a movie that is meant to be liked. It’s intended as a takedown movie, a movie that tricks people similar to its leads into going to see and then confronting them brutally with what they really are. And while I am pretty damned far from being like the leads (I hate parties and crowds, and Spring Break for me in college was when I caught up on my reading and the video games I missed) I found the movie to be unique, fascinating and engaging. It’s easily the best movie of Korine’s career and one of the better movies of the increasingly bizarre year. Highly recommended.
Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’d like to congratulate the parent’s of the year for taking their five year old to this movie.