And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

“Just pretend like it’s a video game.”

-Candy, Spring Breakers

“Spring break forever, bitches.”

-Alien, Spring Breakers

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon was the first to draw my attention towards the admittedly hilarious idea of Spring Breakers as a Gatsby parallel. And while, like O’Hehir, I doubt if Korine has ever read the book, let alone cared enough about it to use it as a touchstone in one of his films, it does well enough to highlight the theme of cultural reappropriation running throughout Spring Breakers. Certainly both Jay Gatsby and Alien (James Franco’s iced-out, hedonistic gangsta rapper/drug dealer/gun enthusiast) strive towards a larger-than-life ideal of the American Dream, though Gatsby’s journey takes him to the upper sphere of social strata, while in an inverse of this ideal, Alien will have to settle for merely being ghetto fabulous, self-made but an outlaw and outcast on the fringes of society. What’s important is that each builds themself into something they’re not.

But then again, so do the nubile, titular teeny-boppers that function as our protagonists: Faith, Candy, Brit, and Cotty (distinguishing between the four is hardly important). Not content to spend their spring break on an all-but-deserted college campus, three of the four – see if you can guess the holdout just based on their names – conspire to rob a chicken shack for the cash money that will spirit them away to St. Pete, Florida, where they can participate in the glamorous excess of spring break…spring break…spring break forever… And so they do, clutching booze bottles in paper bags and assimilating themselves into the throbbing, orgiastic mass of beautiful-bodied young people that swarm to warmer climates in mid-March. Korine opens the film on just such an image, revelers cavorting in the surf, pouring booze down beer bongs and bare breasts, shot in slo-mo and set to Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.” It’s a hilarious tone-setter, but Korine revisits the images over the course of the film, and as the plot turns down a darker path, the same images become increasingly sinister. What initially seems like relatively harmless escapism becomes, in context, a never-ending barrage of hollow superficiality and sexuality.

Likewise, for our feysome foursome, things begin innocuously enough: some dabbling in drugs, same-sex grinding, and, of course, indiscriminate boozing. But the girls get more than they bargain for when arrested for possession while hanging with a pair of serious pushers (played by the ATL twins, the bizarre duo profiled in Vice magazine). With a knowing glance towards Alien, the twins arrange for the group’s bail later that day, and the girls, a little grateful and a lot mystified by their enigmatic benefactor, hop into Alien’s sports car and ride off. It’s here that the girls’ behavior begins to stray down a more dangerous path. It’s one thing to experiment with a little youthful hedonism – granted, the girls had already committed armed robbery at this point, albeit with a fake pistol – but quite another to align yourself with a hardcore drug pusher with a serious arsenal of illegal weaponry.

Spring Breakers (2013)

“LOOK AT MY SHIT!”

What’s most surprising about this turn is how readily the girls embrace the bigger stakes. Their initial reticence towards Alien gives way to a recognition of the glamorous possibilities now availed to them, consequences be damned. It doesn’t hurt that Alien, for all his gangsta trappings, seems utterly harmless in comparison to the girls, full of bluster and half-baked badassery but not possessing the capability for real menace. He’s a kid playing dress-up, and Franco jumps headfirst into the role, giving one of the most memorable comedic performances in recent memory. Like Tony Montana in Scarface – one of several parallels Korine draws with that film – his bark is bigger than his bite, but unlike Tony, it stays that way. He’s comfortable enough with criminality insofar as it enhances his material wealth and larger-than-life image, but is only playing at being gangsta – something borne out by a shocking turn of events during the film’s climax.

The girls, on the other hand, seem rife with potential for mayhem, and it’s unclear where they draw the line on their illegal activities. In one of Spring Breaker‘s funniest scenes, the girls force Alien to perform fellatio on a pair of his own silenced pistols until he embraces the act and gives the best damn blow job he’s capable of, afterwards professing his love for the girls and making out with both of them on a bed piled with money and guns. The girls are no less playing dress-up than Alien, but they push themselves to the limit, ever onward towards higher highs. And Korine embraces the superficiality of it all: stating in a bizarre Reddit AMA that “There is beauty in all shit,” Korine finds the inherent appeal of spring break excess and criminality, and, rather than condemning it as would a heavy-handed moralist, simply recognizes the downsides and consequences of a lifestyle that can be enjoyable up to a point. In the film’s best sequence, a montage of reckless behavior set to Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” he even manages to make criminality seem beautiful, and at worst a youthful indiscretion. It’s hard to look at the candy-coated universe of Korine’s spring break and not find some beauty in it, even if its pleasures are ultimately mindless.

As the narrative spirals into chaos, Korine’s approach ramps up the hyperreality until, at last, it approaches un-reality. In a climactic shootout between Franco and two of the girls and a rival pusher/gang member played by Gucci Mane, set at the latter’s beachfront mansion (as with Gatsby, Alien’s goal placed at the end of a dock glowing in the darkness), the girls run rampant through the property and mow down Gucci’s henchmen with ease, not so much as taking a lick themselves. This led to the assertion by Slate writer Aisha Harris that Spring Breakers is racist, that its portrayal of the rivalry between Alien and Gucci prioritizes white lives over black ones. But privilege and artifice are two of the dominant themes of the film: the girls, free to come and go between this lifestyle and their domesticated trappings, aren’t really a part of this world. Even Alien, for all his cultural co-opting, is at least inextricably tied to the gangsta lifestyle he tries to exemplify. But the girls, free to “pretend like it’s a video game,” come through it all unscathed. They’re no less tourists here than they are grinding on each other at the beach.

Still, as their journey comes to an end, it’s easy to see why they’d be sad to move on. While it’s unlikely that Korine is much for F. Scott Fitzgerald, he is a self-professed fan of Terrence Malick, and the film that Spring Breakers most strikingly parallels is Badlands, Malick’s debut feature about a killer and his girlfriend on the run. In each film, a girl (or girls) is captivated by the presence of a charismatic bad boy, who romances her and introduces her to a criminal lifestyle. In each, it’s clear that the charade can’t last and that the romance (and lifestyle) is doomed to fail – and that despite the obvious wrongness of much of it, it’s a bittersweet conclusion. And just as Badlands feels both distinctly of a time and timeless, its 50s trappings belieing its fairy-tale quality, so does Spring Breakers turn 2000s MTV/Girls Gone Wild clichés into a more far-reaching portrait of youthful excess and nostalgia.

States Holly in the voice-over narration on Badlands‘ soundtrack (an element also borrowed by Korine for Spring Breakers, to much the same ironic effect): “Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land, and this never happened,” the point being not so much that Holly doesn’t find her fairy-tale home as that she feels she possibly could’ve. In Spring Breakers, the girls arguably do just that. And while they may eventually have to return home, the party goes on without them. Spring break forever.