Film Catch-Up: Spring Breakers / Only the Young

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[Editor’s Note: Spoilers follow for both Spring Breakers and Only the Young]. 

It’s oddly fitting that a film which plunges its stunt-cast Disney Channel starlets into a nonstop, hedonistic, drug-orgy nightmare would turn out to be Harmony Korine’s masterpiece. Perhaps it’s selling him short, but for a filmmaker who so excitedly focuses on surface pleasures, he’s found an ideal subject matter in the vapid, delirious whirlwind of a collegiate spring break. There’s an emotional emptiness to his previous films that goes uncorrected, but as a parade of nihilistic pomposity, Spring Breakers comes through, literally guns a-blazing.

The set-up is simple and strange: a quartet of bikini-clad female friends who thirst for an awakening decides to fulfill their wishes by robbing a diner to fund their own spiritual pilgrimage (in a matter of speaking… they’re actually taking their talents to south beach). Their escape from monotony (shown in visual shorthand in a lecture hall sequence; rows of zombified faces lit only by the glow of computer screens) is presented with a surprisingly straight face. Korine’s aesthetic dazzles – cinematography from Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void DP, an elliptical editing style that skips forward and back in time, a Malick-esque voiceover more blatantly banal – and within all the propulsion he finds moments of real sensual poetry.

Unfortunately, James Franco’s introduction as a Kevin Federline-esque rapper, Alien, temporarily stalls the manic ambush of neon flash that propels the film’s first hour. A self-consciously showy performance, Franco’s character has moments of humor (his already-canonized monologue extolling the girls to “look at [his] sheeeeyit”), but his presence coincides with an attempt to form a more serious narrative strand that Korine’s script can’t sustain. The clumsy attempt to address “Big Ideas” in the film’s final hour – yes, characters do unironically spout off about the “American Dream” repeatedly – only elicits groans.

Those instances of overreaching are forgivable in light of such evocative scenes as the girls’ initial robbery, and a later violent siege scored to an old Britney Spears ballad. For his skill in conjuring unexpectedly vivid moods and moments, Korine is still guilty of trying to have his cake and eat it too. His subversion loses its bite when the targets are such low-hanging fruit – those who giggled about unsuspecting teens being ambushed by the absurdity on display were so pleased to be “in on it.”

Perhaps Korine would be well suited to heed critic Mike D’Angelo’s advice to focus on something other than features. The conventional narrative demands seem ill suited to his flair for an immediate rush. Sometimes the imposition of a three-act narrative can be a vice on a film, and for all its pleasures, Spring Breakers ultimately sputters when it tries to shoehorn in a story amid all the sensation.

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In that sense, the title for most daring teenage film of the year might have to go to an unlikely source, Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims’ lyrical documentary about two California teens, Only the Young. It’s the flip side to Spring Breakers’ Skrillex-scored bombast, instead mining the surprising decency of its subjects into a simple, touching portrait of youth. Kevin and Garrison are skateboarders, but also evangelicals. They romantically pair up with girls, but share a brotherly love between one another. In short, they’re still slowly discovering themselves, and the film’s format follows suit, refusing to force-feed a pat narrative.

Garrison, Kevin, and girl friend (but not always girlfriend) Skye live in Canyon County, California, which per the film’s depiction may as well be a ghost town. Shown in creatively composed static takes, their surroundings are empty as if waiting to be filled with the kids’ potential. With the glut of reality shows eager to display the uglier sides of teen culture, it’s refreshing to find how articulate, honest, and charming these kids can be. All three wear their hearts on their sleeves, and its easy to see why the filmmakers (who met the subjects in a chance encounter) were immediately entranced.

There are opportunities for the filmmakers to play up dramatic incident – a dad in prison, a home in danger of being lost – but they show restraint in remaining bystanders to the hazy trajectory of their subjects’ lives. At only 70 minutes long, the film never threatens to wear out its welcome, and seems unconcerned with manufacturing any sort of insipid drama. Here the only measure of artifice is in Kevin, Garrison, and Skye’s direct addresses to the camera. But even in that acknowledgement of being documented, there’s an opportunity to see their self-perceptions. The way Garrison speaks to Kevin versus how he speaks to the camera reveals further layers of his character.

Although the film moves chronologically, it makes no specific reference to the amount of time passing. The abrupt changing of haircuts every several scenes is confusing at first, but it can be thematically tied to the teens’ identities – constantly in flux, and in search of something that feels right. A lack of narration allows the viewer to fill in any blanks for themselves, and its rewarding to be given such freedom of interpretation. There’s much to relish in the camaraderie and candor of good friends interacting honestly.

The at-times dreamy, stylized brand of camerawork references Gus Van Sant, who of course built his brand with depictions of teenage turmoil. But Van Sant’s work exceled most in capturing a sense of isolation, and the distance teens can project around themselves. Mims and Tippet adopt a similar style while incorporating more emphasis on connectivity. The elegance of their camerawork lends serenity to the setting, creating a landscape of warmth for all its sparseness.

It’s dicey to attribute any overarching “statement” to either Only the Young or Spring Breakers on the state of youth culture. What both are successful at is capturing the vibrancy and vividness of being a kid, the future laid out before them in all its terror and glory. Both films are immediate, full of an insistence to really live, and not just for today or tomorrow. Or as Alien would say, “Spring breaaak. Spring breaaaaaaaaaak. Spring break foreeeevaaaaa.”

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