The most culturally enduring moment of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers belongs to a drugged-out James Franco cooing “Spraaaang break forever,” but the film’s thesis statement arrives at its mid-point to the tune of Britney Spears. As Franco’s gangster-slash-rapper-slash-party-impresario Alien sits at a baby grand piano overlooking the Florida coast, three gun-toting girls in neon ski masks, bikini tops, and sweatpants flock to his side like dancers shuffling into line at a barre. When they ask Alien to “Play something fucking inspiring,” he trills the opening notes of Spears’ yearning ballad, “Everytime.”
The montage that unfolds over the next few moments is violent, dreamy, and almost gleefully arbitrary–an apt simulacrum for the disaffected corner of Obama-era pop culture that the film underscores. It’s also not the only time Spring Breakers, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this week, positions Britney–who in 2013 was still years away from autonomy outside her conservatorship–as a guiding light. She’s a pop culture juggernaut whose nonpareil charm and ubiquity made her both a star and a pariah in equal measure, depending on what the tabloids had to say that day. What’s a girl to do when she’s no longer a girl, but not yet a woman? Toe the line between Disney and deviance, of course.
A lot has changed since Spring Breakers premiered on March 15, 2013—presidential administrations have come and gone, dubstep has fallen in and out of style, and A24, the indie production company that took on the project as its third-ever film, has blossomed into an industry powerhouse whose Everything Everywhere All At Once won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, at the 95th Annual Academy Awards. But a decade on from its release, Spring Breakers still crashes into something timeless, serving as both a relic of its era and a prescient vision of the aesthetics that permeate popular media today.
Spring sprung from a perverse, yet potent mind
Provocation was nothing new to Korine when he set out to make Spring Breakers—he made his name in the industry on a certain brand of sexed-up disillusionment, writing 1995’s Kids, which introduced the general public to Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson. By the time he made Spring Breakers, Korine had long favored brash characters who wander through the margins of society.
Those preferences guided Spring Breakers, although the cast of characters looks quite different than Korine’s previous lineups. Spring Breakers follows Faith (Selena Gomez,) Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) as they dive headfirst into spring break bacchanalia after nabbing some quick cash robbing a chicken shop armed with squirt guns and Nicki Minaj’s “Moment 4 Life.” For Gomez and Hudgens, the film served as a pathway out of child stardom and into an adult career. Around the film’s release, Gomez shared via Facebook that Spring Breakers was “not for [her] littles.” Not everyone was going like it—that was the point. “I want people to look at me not as that girl from High School Musical, but as an actress they admire,” Hudgens told The New York Times in 2013. “I want to shock people.”
Shock it did: as with Korine projects past, critics of Spring Breakers derided the movie for its leering voyeurism. The way Britt, Candy, Cotty, and Faith alternate between playful childhood antics (racing games, handstands) and the pursuit of sexual awakening (twerking and touching each other) looks and feels jarring. But this is the post-2010 internet age, where Pornhub serves as a primary form of American sex education and Terry Richardson’s aesthetic dominates Tumblr at the peak of its powers. Sex, sense of self, and public distribution of the two become inextricably linked. At the beginning of the film, Brit and Candy draw crude, scribbled dicks on note pads for a hushed giggle in class; later, the ante gets upped during a sequence where Alien mimics fellatio on two loaded pistols the girls maneuver in his mouth.
As Philippa Snow notes in a 2018 essay for Garage, Spring Breakers is revelatory in showing that “it’s possible for women in a movie to be neither disempowered or empowered by its narrative.” Brit, Candy, Cotty, and Faith are loosely drawn and exploitatively realized for a reason—in embodying the most debauched aspects of the teen dream, they also serve as a perfect blank slate on which to pin ideas about what’s wrong with society. Is it violence in video games? Kids getting too sexy too soon? The wealth gap? Our titular spring breakers certainly don’t know, nor really care—in the thick of their good-girls-gone-bad arc, they’re not worrying why or how they got there. Korine wasn’t either—instead, he wanted to craft a screenplay filled with continually revisited cornerstone moments, the “way that a pop song has hooks.” As he told The Guardian in 2013, “We were trying to obliterate the sense of time and go with something that was more like a feeling.”
The swooning style of Spring Breakers lives on...
The clearest descendant of Spring Breakers is also one of the most popular shows of the past five years, right down to its smart decision to place a beloved former Disney kid at its center. The hook of HBO’s Euphoria, like Spring Breakers, isn’t any discernible standout dialogue or plot-building; it’s about a look, a sound, a vibe. (The series’ first season was advertised with the slogan, “Remember this feeling.”) The messy tone so meticulously set in Spring Breakers has its fingerprints all over Euphoria—Spring Breakers’ costume designer Heidi Bivens has worked on both seasons of the series.
Spring Breakers proved to be a bonafide, course-setting hit for indie distributor A24. The film’s salacious marketing and star power paid off, and Spring Breakers grossed over $30 million worldwide off of a measly $5 million budget. It wasn’t just about the money though—Spring Breakers helped cement A24 as a creative haven for younger, auteur directors looking to strike gold outside of existing IP. As years went by, that gold was often mined from Florida ground; Barry Jenkins’ 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight and Sean Baker’s 2017 film The Florida Project each blossomed from a unique filmmaker’s vision of life in the Sunshine State.
Despite the controversy that the movie’s hypersexuality fostered, Spring Breakers’ attempts at interrogating racism were in some ways even more overt. In the film’s climactic mansion massacre, Brit and Candy, fresh out of an overwhelmingly white hotel party, decimate the compound of Alien’s best-friend-turned-nemesis (Gucci Mane), a Black kingpin enjoying a similar lifestyle to Alien, albeit surrounded by a Black entourage. Alien may have ripped his entire vibe from Black culture, but he still credits Scarface as his main gangster inspiration (as he crows in one scene, he keeps the film “on repeat, constant, y’all!”). To a character like Alien, that’s the kind of gang-banging that holds cachet in an American dream boxed in by systemic racism. Unfortunately, Korine’s attempt to explore such fetishization pigeonholes the vast and diverse experience of being Black, something he fundamentally can’t grasp. (Notably, Euphoria has also faced criticism for its depiction of Black characters like Christopher McKay.)
There is no Spring Breakers without Britney Spears
If Florida provides Spring Breakers’ environment, a young Britney Spears—herself fashioned in the image of Janet Jackson—provides its ethos. As Korine has said, she serves as a “pop culture umbilical cord” for the film’s four heroines. Theories have floated that Spring Breakers serves as a direct metaphor for the Britney story—but back then, no one was understanding Britney’s side. One half of a fleeting image and the vulturous scrutiny of that image does not make a whole; taking a birdseye view of the way Britney was presented in the tabloids, and turning her into a pop-art image as vaguely outlined as Brit or Candy, didn’t bring anyone closer to actually seeing her.
I spent my early years online inundated by perversions of a grand teen idealism, scrolling blindly through romance fanfics, Tumblr thinspo, and that great arbiter of femininity, JustGirlyThings. The first time I watched internet porn, I received a virus message (one too many nights trying to pirate America’s Next Top Model) the next day in class telling me the FBI would soon be at my doorstep. I panicked, but once the dust had settled and I hadn’t been extracted from middle school in handcuffs, I felt excited at the thought that I’d gotten away with something bad.
When Spring Breakers premiered, I was 14 years old and had never yearned harder for something I saw onscreen. Although early aughts culture had a lecherousness to it that had lost favor by 2013, kids who spent their formative years scanning tabloids in the grocery store aisle didn’t need unfettered MTV access to see the world through Girls Gone Wild goggles. I’d never even been close to sucking down a beer bong in St. Petersburg in 2013, but I’d curated countless Skrillex-heavy playlists based on that very PacSun-clad dream: running from home, driving fast, looking good, but even more importantly, being looked at. The feel of Spring Breakers—not to mention the gleaming starlets at its center—permeated beyond any target audience.
“It’s way more than just having a good time,” Faith tells her grandmother of the trip over the phone, as Benoît Debie’s camera slides across sticky, scantily-clad bodies in motion. Whether there’s actually more to the story than debaucherous fun is small potatoes—Spring Breakers resonates most as a lurid mirror to the flipside of the early-2010s virtue signaling that makes so much art from that era feel dated. Spring break, by nature, is fleeting—but the iconography of that wet hot “Amuuurican Dreeeam, y’all,” and the cultural appetite for brazenly vibes-first content against a high-stakes backdrop of violence, sex, and ecstasy, endures.