So…James Franco? 'Spring Breakers?' Best Supporting Actor?

Posted by · 2:33 pm · March 14th, 2013

Just to get this out of the way, no, this isn’t likely to happen in any universe. But bear with me…

I caught up with Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” earlier this week and was as fascinated by it, as I imagine most viewers (even detractors) are. The interesting thing to me, while finally sifting through the film’s reviews that landed out of the Venice and Toronto film festivals last year, was that everyone, lover or hater, definitely saw the same film. The question is who was able to buy it as satire and who wasn’t, and even more, who was willing to buy it as willful satire.

“It’s a line this frequently amusing film never negotiates with complete success,” Guy wrote in his Variety review out of Venice, “though Korine might believe this ambiguity is itself indicative of the generation under scrutiny.” I’ll put a chip on the latter consideration and just say I went with it, for the most part. I think it’s a rather potent study of “spring break” as a state of mind, the desperate race for greener pastures that grows like a fungus in small town America. Korine has always dabbled in the disenchantment of youth, so what he was saying with this film, I bought it.

Formally, it’s a bit of a wonder, actually. DP Benoît Debie and film editor Douglas Crise deserve commendation as it’s a dreamy tapestry that bores down, at once seductive and repugnant: a nice distillation of the theme, I’d say. The sound design is equally enchanting.

In so many words, I think “Spring Breakers” is one of the year’s best films so far, but I won’t take umbrage with anyone who finds that it’s an abrasive exercise that misses its mark. What I’d like to talk about, though, is James Franco, who walks a razor’s edge with his performance as Alien, a St. Petersburg, Florida white boy thug who represents a sickening sort of exoticism for the story’s bikini-clad beach bunnies.

First of all, this guy — Franco — obviously can’t sit still. He’s working so much lately that you can’t help but be in awe, and whether you like the bulk of the work or not, you have to respect the ethic. If he hits a snag, doesn’t matter, chalk it up and keep rolling. Sometimes it’s a woeful misfire, sometimes it’s a freakin’ Oscar nomination. The drive is hugely inspiring.

Here, he carves out a character modeled on South Florida rapper Dangeruss (though Houston-grown nightmare RiFF RaFF sure would like to take the credit — the look of the character has obvious parallels). He’s as magnetic as he is repulsive, which, again, plays into theme. He also has a soft sort of core that I think few critics are bothering to investigate.

There’s a sense of loss in Alien, a longing buried deep in his “Look at my sheeit!” fronting. It’s no wonder he proclaims, believably, that the film’s anti-heroines are his soul mates: they’re as full of loss and longing as he is. These people have holes they’re looking to fill (um…no pun intended). Some are equipped with the emotional wherewithal to seek it out in the right places, others aren’t. But what are the right places, really?

The point is, Franco negotiates a spirited character amid all that blacklit gaudiness. And I think he deserves awards attention for what he’s accomplished. Charismatic portrayals that could have been mere ciphers have tickled the season’s fancy in the past, from Ned Beatty in “Network” to Kevin Kline in “A Fish Called Wanda” to Robert Downey Jr. in “Tropic Thunder” and Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight.” Why not Franco?

The answer, obviously, is that most viewers likely won’t be willing to see Alien beyond his cornrows, guns and tats, but I like what I saw. I like the pulse Franco found. And I’d like for others to see the same.

Or maybe I’ll just be alone on this one.

“Spring Breakers” opens in limited release tomorrow. It goes wide on March 22.

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