[If a crib sheet is needed, here is the Wikipedia article on the Hero’s Journey.]
In film school we learned about the Hero’s Journey from The Hero with a Thousand Faces about one thousand times (ba dum, chich). You couldn’t get through a class without hearing about it. Eventually I raised my hand and asked “isn’t this theory elastic enough that you can stretch it to apply to anything? Is it still really a theory if you can do that?” and my professor gave a knowing smile and said nothing and class ended shortly afterward.
The monomyth is elastic and easy to cast anyone in, especially yourself. The girls and ostensible heroes of Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012) do just that. The audience is able to look at them from outside the glossy interior view of the myth, though by casting the movie in the girls’ perspective the audience is also occasionally seduced by their vision. The girls imagine themselves as heroes and view many of the things that happen to them as “supernatural” while in reality they are morally deficient people living in a fantasy world, having real and destructive effects on the “natural world” around them.
The girls can be collectively considered the “heroes” of the journey (in the sense of the monomyth): they all play roles that the “hero” would assume, and they are handled as a collective – when any of them leaves spring break they disappear from the film entirely, as if the hero has simply shed that trait. Collectively they are the hero known as the “Spring Breakers”, and just as Campbell used an amalgamation of different heroes and combined them into one to create his iconic hero, so too does Korine utilize the girls as a single entity, colored by their similarities and unified experience.
The film up until the point where the girls leave for break functions as the “Call to Adventure”. Spring Breakers treats the quest as a quasi-spiritual one: the girls are left behind in the dorms without the money to fund their spring break, and they need to get out. The call to adventure is not an external force but rather one from within.
I’m so tired of seeing the same things every single day. Everyone is miserable here because everybody sees the same things; they wake up in the same bed, the same houses, the same depressing streetlights, one gas station. The grass… it’s not even green it’s brown. Everything’s the same and everyone’s just sad. I don’t want to end up like them. It’s more than just break, it’s our chance to see something different.
…says Faith as one of the opening lines of the film, and it is that sentiment that drives the call to action. The girls are “fated” to go on this adventure: they violently rob a convenience store and escape easily. This crime never catches up with them. They live a untouchable fantasy life, their delusion fortified by their privilege.
Spring Break, the supernatural world, does not disappoint on the spiritual front. As Faith (Selena Gomez as the girls’ conscience) puts it: “I really feel like we found ourselves here.” That is exactly what a hero should be doing on their journey. They (heroes at large and the girls too) are searching for something within themselves to return with at the end of the quest. Most heroes discover some inner strength or learn some lesson geared towards doing good. The girls discover a release from remorse or culpability for their actions. Its Spring Break, after all, a time to let loose and ignore the consequences. Even Faith does not reprimand the other girls when they reenact the terrifying robbery from earlier in the film. Morality is out the window.
The girls are briefly arrested but freed swiftly by their ‘Guide’ Alien, a rapper and drug dealer played by James Franco in what is easily my favorite performance by him. The girls ‘Cross the Threshold’ when they are thrown into jail and then bailed out. Even when punishment should exist, it is ignored, and they are now with someone on the other side of law and morality.
The ‘Belly of the Whale’ is the first point where it becomes apparent how effective treating the girls as parts of an iconic whole is. Faith has deep reservations about meeting Alien’s friends. She is scared of Alien and the unfamiliar company he keeps (older men and women of various races, which Faith finds “supernatural”). Up until this point Faith has served as the closest thing the story has to a single hero but she is unable to handle this foreign world. So she leaves. The girls protest half-heartedly, but there’s no way she’s staying and there is no way that they’re leaving. The girls literally watch their “morality” and their final tie to their normal college life ride away. “The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died,” says Campbell of this stage.
The remaining girls are successfully swallowed by the unknown though they offer little resistance. Brought back to Alien’s house they pick up guns and ski masks. The “Goddess” they meet teaches them further amorality and anonymity in their crimes – with the masks and the guns and with Alien at their side, they are unstoppable and unpunishable. Along with Alien they break into hotel rooms and rob other Spring Breakers. This crime also goes unpunished. The audience has stopped questioning their supernatural ability to get away by this point. We’ve been swallowed by their delusion as well. The girls (and the audience right along with them) do not “find a person they love the most”, but rather fall in love with and grow intoxicated with their willingness to commit crimes, be violent, and escape with no consequence of law or conscience.
After a confrontation by Alien’s rival, Archie (Gucci Mane), the girls are shot at and Cotty is wounded. The girls are faced with the brutal realities of this supernatural world. This is the “Atonement with the Father” – this is the clash of the fantasy and the reality. The girls are faced with two options: return home having accepted that escapism into a fantasy world is impossible, and consequences exist, or continue to delve into the fantasy world. Cotty is unable to accept the fantasy world, and so follows Faith by boarding a bus home. The girls that remain are further untethered from the natural world. The movie does not leave us with any ambiguity as to what the “heroic” choice was. Cotty disappears, and the girls who remain retain the status of hero. It is not a shock, because the Belly of the Whale taught the audience that remaining in the amoral fantasy world is the choice the hero will make. Faith’s concerns have been confirmed, but this is the journey that this “hero” has set out on and it must be brought to its conclusion.
The remaining girls (Brit and Candy) will return home eventually to fulfill the “Return” of the monomyth but they first need to reinforce that what they’ve found here they will bring back with them. They need to finish their fantasy and emerge victorious. Only then will the girls have found they truly can do whatever they want and remain unpunished. They have gained the power of freedom, the release from the mundane, and they will exercise it. Before the final confrontation, Brit leaves a message for her mother: “I just want to do better… better at school, better at life. I just feel different for some reason. I feel changed. I just want to be a good girl now. I want to be happy and have fun. Yeah mommy, I think that’s a secret to life. Being a good person.” And it’s all things that sound like a hero: Brit has found that secret of life, the “elixir”, and she is ready to bring it back with her. The hero’s journey has been completed. But the secret she has learned is that the way to be a “good person” is not a virtuous path.
The final scene of the movie packs most of the hero’s return into one sequence along with the ultimate boon. Brit and Candy along with Alien attack Archie’s house and kill him and his friends. Alien is the first casualty of the fight, severing any lasting connection the girls may have to the supernatural world. He is not mourned. He wasn’t, to them, a full person. Then it is time to go home. The girls fittingly steal Archie’s car to symbolize their mastery of the two worlds. Though they are returning home, they are escaping with their newfound freedom from basic “good” and “bad”. In theory there ought to be some punishment for the theft of the car – it is hardly inconspicuous and should the police arrive at Archie’s house and discover his car missing they are likely to track it down. But that doesn’t happen because that’s not how the heroes of this movie operate. The girls are “heroes” for their escapism and rejection of reality and since they are “heroic” the world morphs to accommodate them instead of the other way around. By stealing the car they are both physically taking the “boon” from the supernatural world, and more symbolically taking away their new understanding of a world without consequence.
The hero’s journey is in many ways played in reverse as the girls learn to be more selfish and less moral, but the audience is so conditioned with the hero’s journey that they are still forced to consider the girls’ journey as a hero’s journey, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions as to the nature of spring break and spring breakers. The acts the girls commit appear wrong, yet spring break is fetishized as a release from restrictions and norms and in that sense the girls embody the best of it. By casting the girls in the role of heroes the film becomes a dynamic discussion it would not have been without the audience’s inherent understanding and recognition of the hero’s journey.