Spring Breakers: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

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In spite of Andrew’s raw, feral hatred of this film, I’ve decided to go a little more in-depth in regards to the philosophy and psychology behind Spring Breakers. I realize that the film had niche appeal to begin with, and I also realize that there are some very legitimate reasons for not liking it. Nevertheless, let me cater to those rare few who, like myself, sincerely enjoyed the film, with this brief examination of some of the more understated aspects of character phycology.

Positive Psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology which seeks to understand what makes people happy and to promote joy and fulfillment in the lives of individuals. Essentially, Positive Psychology is unique in the sense that it deals with a person’s happiness, while other branches of psychology are generally more concerned with depression and other mental illnesses.

In his book Authentic Happiness, one of the founding fathers of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, proposes that a person’s happiness can be determined by the following factors: setpoint genetics, circumstances, and voluntary control.

Setpoint genetics refers to the concept of a portion of a person’s happiness being attributed to their genetic makeup. The general idea is that after an individual experiences certain emotional highs or lows, they will eventually return to an average level of happiness, or setpoint, which is inherent in the genetic makeup of an individual- that is to say, unchangeable.  Therefore, Seligman argues, generally optimistic people tent to have a slightly higher setpoint while generally pessimistic people tend to have a lower one. Furthermore, Seligman suggests that about 35 to 50 percent of a person’s overall happiness is influenced by setpoint genetics.

Circumstances, likewise, seems to play a role in a person’s overall happiness, albeit a significantly smaller one. The circumstances referred to here can range from living in the first world versus the third world, being born into a rich family or a poor family, having an illness versus being healthy, etc. Seligman believes that the importance of these factors is much smaller, at about 8 to 15 percent, in the grand scheme of one’s happiness.

Voluntary control is an interesting factor because it proves to be surprisingly important, being responsible for up to 40 percent of a person’s level of happiness. Seligman argues that things like positive affirmations, utilizing one’s strengths and character traits effectively, being mindful- that is to say, being present in the moment-to-moment activities, and feeling as thought one’s actions are purposeful are all examples of voluntary control of one’s emotions.

Now, in regards to Spring Breakers, I’m most interested in the first of these factors, setpoint genetics, and in a phenomenon knows as the ‘hedonistic treadmill’.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the protagonists of the film are devoid of any existential meaning, as I argued in my review. This would erase the possibility of being motivated by living a purposeful life and, as we apparently see in the film, the girls are motivated solely by the pursuit of physical pleasure, or hedonism. Hedonism, essentially the pursuit of pleasure, is a key component of ‘the pleasant life’, but, as Seligman says, that brand of ‘happiness’ is fleeting and does not contribute to a feeling of authentic well being and flourishing.

The girls, without a conception of authentic happiness, and perhaps no capacity for authentic happiness (they’re debatably psychopaths, remember) are left no other option but to pursue the pleasant life. As they pursue the fulfillment of their physical pleasure, they begin to experience an emotional high, which quickly returns to their respective setpoints. As this happens over and over again, they begin to get accustomed to this emotional high in a process called adaptation. To compensate for this adaptation, their expectations must keep growing and growing in a phenomenon known as the hedonistic treadmill. Essentially, once this process has started, and unless an internal, voluntary shift takes place, no amount of pleasure will ever be enough and each successive attempt to recapture that same emotional high will be met with futility.

Perhaps an argument against hedonism, Spring Breakers captures a portrait of a self destructive path, leading neither to fulfillment or authentic happiness. I believe that the story is made all the more tragic by the fact that the girls really believe that they’re going to find some kind of salvation or meaning, where, in reality, only desperation and destruction exist.

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Spring Breakers Review

It’s not very often that you see a meaningful film created in order to capture the essence of a specific moment in time. When such an endeavor is executed successfully, a powerful piece of cinema is sure to be the result. Spring Breakers masquerades under the guise of a Project X or Hangover ripoff, but at its core it insightfully explores some compelling themes and makes an interesting commentary on contemporary society. Spring Breakers is an artfully executed film made all the more surprising by the fact that its success was so unexpected. If you see one movie in next few months, make it this one.

The film is directed by the qualitatively inconsistent yet tenacious Harmony Korine, who, by his own admission, states that Spring Breakers is his best work to date. Starring James Franco, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, and former Disney stars Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, the film beautifully sets up a fundamentally conflicted cast of characters. Franco, in perhaps the greatest performance of his career, portrays the detestable rapper/drug dealer, Alien, to an incredible and unsettling effect.

Spring Breakers presents a beautifully unique visual style which I suppose could best be described as a neon and cotton candy fever dream, which serves as the perfect backdrop for the drug-fueled hedonistic rituals of spring break depicted herein. Skrillex, responsible for much of the score, likewise lends his booming bass and frantic tone to compliment the events taking place in this pseudo-paradise.

The thing I like about Spring Breakers is that it subtly critiques both society as well as the very practices inherent to the celebration of spring break. The film is more than happy to pan across writhing masses of naked flesh, coupled with no small amount of homoerotic undertones, in what many members of generation Y may find “awesome”, and indeed, Alien (Franco) proclaims “bikinis and big booties, ya’ll. That’s what life is about!” But wait, let’s take a look at what kind of people are actually enjoying the festivities. All save one of our four main protagonists are emotionally dead, existentially nihilistic husks that that flounder through life, frantically clinging to every hedonistic experience they can, in lieu of real meaning; they cope with the kind of internal void which may come from being brought up amid the two clashing worlds of disney princesses and Ke$ha-esque pop trash, which may explain Korine’s casting of Hudgens and Gomez. I remember that Sucker Punch back in 2011 tried to pull of something like this but didn’t execute it nearly as well. Essentially, Korine is making fun of the people who came to the theater just to see a bunch of nude coeds prancing around by saying “Look! This is what I think of you!”

I’m temped to say that Spring Breakers is the closest thing we have to the Boogie Nights in the 21st century, as both films explored the themes of redemption after the fall from a false paradise. It seems to me that Franco’s heinous Alien is the visual representation of the protagonist’s internal personas if they continue down their violent and self destructive path. Sure, he had cash, but he was also the most repugnant human being imaginable. Near the end of the movie, when the two remaining girls are about to assault Big Arch’s compound, they both call their mothers in a moment of internal contemplation and imply that they have become disenchanted with the lifestyle that they had so recently believed to be paradise, and one even so far as to say “I think that’s the key to life; being a good person”. Their redemption, however, required one last act of violence and sacrifice to wipe the slate clean. Notice how Alien dies before the action even starts. The visual representation of the animals that the girls would have inevitably become had they continued down that path is destroyed, once they begin their final effort of reconciliation, clearing the way for their metaphorical rebirth and redemption.

The reason I go through so much trouble to explain the finer thematic points is because Spring Breakers can at once be this simple movie about a vacation gone wrong, but it can also be so much more profound, depending on how you look at it. A lot of people didn’t like the movie because they didn’t understand it, which is why I’ve made such a concerted effort to break it down, so that everyone can enjoy this amazing piece of cinema.

Just as Boogie Nights wasn’t really about porn and Magic Mike wasn’t about stripping, Spring Breakers isn’t about partying. Instead, the message is so much more subtle and insightful and serves as a welcome and stark look at things as they are in contemporary society at this moment in time. From the existential void that breeds shallowness and cruelty to the fall from paradise and redemption, Spring Breakers is a masterfully executed and surprisingly smart piece of cinema and is a must see for 2013.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5