Vacant homes and empty heads

Two new cinematic releases deal with aspects of teenage criminality _ and both have been slapped with a 20-plus rating

Meet the Spring-break revellers from hell. Sometimes clad in Pussy Riot-style balaclavas, but most of the time in fluorescent bikinis, Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) orchestrate the year's most hallucinatory orgy to date, a candy-coloured bacchanalia of robbery, bong parties, contraband firearms, murders and a C-cup binge; all of this lubricated by endlessly flowing booze and a riotous beachside cacophony. Bored kids looking for gratifying oblivion, pushing and pushing and pushing the limit of fun. Spring Breakers is driven by the anxiety of excess, visually and psychologically, showing us how an American-style pursuit of happiness can edge pursuers over the cliff and into the sunshine of hell, where they feel right at home and become even more happy.

Spring Breakers

Starring Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine and James Franco. Directed by Harmonie Korine. At SF CentralWorld, Major Sukhumvit and other selected cinemas. There’s a 20-plus rating; ID must be shown to gain admittance.

This strange film by Harmonie Korine will enrage and baffle many. But as a cinematic experience _ I included it among my top five films when it first came out last year _ this is a long, mad, fevered reverie that sucks you in and showers you with acid vomit. At first the Thai distributor wanted to release it on DVD only, but now that it's hit the big screen (rated 20-plus, ID check at the door), braver multiplex-goers can now bask in its inglorious debauchery. Four girls on a break from university go on the rampage in Florida. That just about sums up what happens. The image of overly self-indulgent, half-naked girls _ Gomez and Hudgens have a following here _ is a ploy though; Korine is a director who's not so much interested in beauty and sex as in the ugliness of those things (if you're curious, try his previous one, Trash Humpers, which is about exactly what it sounds like: deformed people who hump rubbish bins). Spring Breakers is, at its simplest level, a satire about kids and criminality, but because Korine ramps it up to an extreme degree, stretching and exploiting to the hilt various cinematic devices _ the pounding MTV-style cuts, the endless slow-motion, the hazy clouds around narrative edges _ until they nearly tip over, he deconstructs the lines between parody, reality, insanity and mortal danger as the film drifts in and out of the subconscious, sometimes taking the form of poison pills that you feel compelled to swallow. Though hinged on the same theme, Korine's Spring Breakers is a hot breath of wasted youth compared to Sofia Coppola's cute jibe at Californian adolescents in The Bling Ring, which also opens today (see other review on this page).

Sexy and scary, like uncaged wild animals unable to find their way back to the zoo, the four girls in the story also blur the borders between prey and predator, between the bullied and the pranksters (and what pranks they pull). Vanessa Hudgens, once a Disney princess who starred in High School Musical, is a savage kitten, while Selena Gomez is an injured young beast. Their wasted looks sum up the terrifying transformation of the four pretty little actors into drug-addled revellers. But the biggest surprise is James Franco _ see if you can recognise him _ in the role of Alien, a dreadlocked, gold-toothed gangster who takes the four girls under his wing. Speaking in hip hop argot, chewing every word like it's a wad of strong tobacco, Alien adds a fascinating, disturbing, nearly extraterrestrial presence to this film that shows how joy and horror, for certain young souls, are destined to be inseparable bedfellows.

The Bling Ring

Starring Emma Watson, Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Claire Julien and Taissa Farmiga. Directed by Sofia Coppola. There’s a 20-plus rating; ID must be shown to gain admittance.

The most beautiful image in The Bling Ring is also the saddest one. We see a modernist house with tall glass walls in a luxurious suburb of LA. Two teens, practically gambolling with excitement, break into the empty residence, turn on the lights, run up and down the stairs, rummage in the bedrooms and loot the belongings of the absent owner, purportedly Audrina Patridge, the TV celebrity. Filmed in a long take from a high angle, the shot makes the place look like a toy house, a snow globe without the snow, a precious little object being enjoyed by two delightful kids who are playing at being adults. And not just your average grown-ups, but brazenly rich and obscenely famous ones.

The Bling Ring is a comedy, a gentle (if thin) satire of fame-obsessed youths, and a canny probe into the ecosystem of LA's celeb culture and the weird influence it exerts on the rest of the population, especially the TMZ and tabloid-consuming generation. It also shows _ as one character helpfully sums up _ America's fascination with criminals, in particular young and glamorous criminals. That it's based on a true account _ and adapted from a Vanity Fair article _ makes it all the more surprising when we find out just how easy it is to look up online the addresses of super-rich celebrities and then saunter into their homes to make off with car-loads of high-end goods (the loot including the cars themselves).

Emma Watson is the biggest name in a cast chosen to portray a club-hopping, pot-smoking, selfie-talking gang of LA youths who break into the houses of Holly-wood stars when they're away (on film shoots or hosting parties elsewhere) and steal their Birkin bags, Chanel gowns, Louboutin shoes, Rick Owens jackets, other glittering, brand-name thingamajigs and cash. The victims range from Orlando Bloom to Audrina Patridge, but the principal focus is on Paris Hilton, whose walk-in closet (filmed in its actual location!) is as astounding as Aladdin's cave of treasure, and Lindsay Lohan, the ultimate icon of extravagant wastefulness and the idea of infamy as fame. Nor are these youthful thieves at all poor, either; the film suggests that they were driven by a need to belong to that bubble of luxury and the fantasy of a lifestyle _ very different from a life _ which they had only been able to inhabit vicariously through gossip sites. Plain stupidity was another factor that allowed them to push things as far as they did.

A big chunk of the film features scenes of the teenage robbers exclaiming "Totally awesome!" or "Oh my God, I love Chanel!" as they gain entry to the usually unlocked celebs' homes and plough through mountains of expensive goods. If the film doesn't seem to have any real narrative _ if it seems to keep repeating itself _ that's because Coppola isn't as keen on telling a story as she is in the way these kids talk, swear, hang out and nurse their hidden insecurities under a fake narcissism. These are shallow teenagers _ and the film feels shallow, too, as if it intentionally set out to textualise that sense of there being a void. Here the satire is cute rather than cruel (for cruelty, see Spring Breakers) and while the characters are caricatures of young people we might just as easily run into in Siam Square as in LA, The Bling Ring does boast a pair of actors who give some dimension to what might otherwise come across as a broad stereotype: Israel Broussard, who plays Marc, a sensitive, secretly gay boy in the gang; and Katie Chang, as Rebecca, the ringleader who turns out to be the coldest kid in all of sunny California. Amidst the thieving romp and adolescent folly, these two kids _ they're the ones we see in that toy-house shot _ and Broussard, in particular, are almost able to make this amusing film into something more _ something about finding one's place where every single empty home is in fact occupied.

(The film was rated 20-plus apparently because it contains scenes of youngsters smoking bongs).

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist