loridian Victor Nuñez made two gems — “Ruby in Paradise” (1993) and “Ulee’s Gold” (1997) — before vanishing into the lost latitudes of the film industry. The less refined “Ruby” is his best because it gives itself over to then-neophyte Ashley Judd, and she returns the favor with an exceptional performance she never again matched (arguably because she never got the chance).
Judd is Ruby Lee Gissling, who having bolted dead-end town gets a job as a gift shop salesclerk in a Florida coastal resort during the sleepy off-season.
Paradise this is not. She ends up befriending and sleeping with two men (Ricky and Mike, the latter played by “In the Bedroom” director Todd Field). Ricky is a handsome opportunist, son of the souvenir shop owner, while Mike is a good-guy gardener. The men, and the differences between them, are Ruby trying to figure out who she is and figure out what her moon is made from, and it’s considerable harder and more sour than green cheese.
Judd’s Ruby is stubborn, aloof, compassionate and curious, at ease with self-discovery and entirely unsentimental. It’s the kind of darkly introspective and ironic female lead (“I heard that Hell is when all your dreams come true,” says Ruby) that only better indie films ever encourage, let alone allow. In this case, though, it’s as if Nuñez had literally told Judd to be herself while fleshing out a complete and convincing performance. She does both. Small masterpiece is overused, but this is both minor and masterful, like life.
Now then: what’s the opposite of masterpiece? The better question might be, “How do you turn a Florida rite — spring break — into an excuse for 90 minutes of run-time?” Leave that to Harmony Korine, who in “Spring Breakers” (2013) shows how easy it is to make a bad indie flick when you’re peddling what seems like an American Dream parody: young women going nowhere ready to make their mark oblivious to squalor.
If Nunez takes time out to focus on one woman, Korine takes the easier and increasingly common comic book panel approach, subverting the 1960s Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon “Beach Blanket Bingo” model of kooky fun.
Meet Faith (Selena Gomez), Brittany (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine), bored college friends who don’t have enough cash to join in on peer debauchery come ritual break time. Instead, they’re stuck on campus, where they whine and crave and play mischievous best girl buds.
Until the baddest two of the foursome come up with a plan to rob a food joint and use the cash to head south, which they do wearing masks and wielding hammers. Once in breaker Nirvana it’s all booze and sex and drugs, and more booze and sex and drugs, giving Korine enough material to rub up against porn without actually taking the plunge. It’s girls-just-want-to-have-fun in sardonic overdrive.
Problem is, one of the women has a conscience, and even an occasionally functioning moral compass — who else but Faith? When the four are arrested and fall in with a very bad boy “Alien” (James Franco), Faith veers toward a new kind of whining, as in: “This is not the way it was supposed to be…”
Depth-wise, that’s about as far as Korine seeks to go, and with Faith soon out of the picture, booze, sex and drugs return to the loop followed by the next best thing: automatic weapons. It’s Amerika the Beautiful with lots of skin tint and flash, but lacking both in human credibility and subtlety (as in, “I heard that Hell is when all your dreams come true,” which in fact represents a realer form of irony).
The generation gap (Nuñez was born in 1945, Korine in 1973) and the difference in direction and goals is why these two indies are best seen in the same sitting: as an object lesson in filmmaking priorities.