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Which Spring Break Movie Is the Best Alternative to the Real Thing?

If your spring break got canceled (and it did; stay home!), try and recapture the vibes with one of these sun- ’n’ bikini-soaked flicks

Spring break is an annual college tradition, a once-a-year bacchanal that sends the young and horny to the warmer climes of Florida, Mexico, Arizona and elsewhere to test the limits of the human body’s potential to party. If you’re in college in 2020, however, there’s a good chance you won’t make it this year. Unless you attend a school with an early break or were among those who defied social-distancing orders to party anyway (booo!), you’ve likely spent this year spring break-less. That’s a drag, even for those too old to attend spring break (or were never all that inclined to go in the first place): No matter if sharing space with drunk, screaming coeds is the last thing you’d want to do, it’s still nice to know that life’s rituals continue, as predictable as the tides or the cycles of the moon.

With the world out of balance, however, all we can do is live some parts of pre-COVID-19 life vicariously. Fortunately, we have a deep reserve of spring-break movies to draw from as we sit cooped up in our houses. 

But how many actually work as alternatives to attending spring break in person? Let’s have a look at some to find out — in each case, we’ve given it a score out of 10 regarding how well it transports you to those spring break vibes.

Where the Boys Are (1960)

The origins of spring break as we know it can be traced back to the 1930s, when Fort Lauderdale, Florida first became the site of an annual gathering of college swimmers thanks to its Olympic-sized pool. From there, the ritual grew, and a 1959 article in Time, headlined “Beer and the Beach,” helped raise the city’s profile, making it the place to go for college kids with hedonistic intentions. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to cash in on a trend, MGM responded with the 1961 film Where the Boys Are, which follows four college women from the chilly Midwest to Florida, where adventure awaits them.

But it’s not all fun in the sun. Adapted from a 1960 novel by Glendon Swarthout — then a 42-year-old college professor at Michigan State — the film opens with the seemingly liberated Merritt (Dolores Hart) citing the Kinsey Report in class and dismissing outdated notions of morality before heading to Florida with her pals Tuggle (Paula Prentiss), Melanie (Yvette Mimieux) and Angie (Connie Francis). Once there, they do what all hot-blooded college co-eds do in such situations: look for steady, long-term relationships and maybe even proposals of marriage.

Where the Boys Are initially can’t seem to make up its mind if it wants to champion a new age of debauchery or warn against it. That the only member of the quartet to have sex ends up shamed and sexually assaulted ultimately makes its feelings clear, but until then, it works as a time capsule of Fort Lauderdale as it was becoming synonymous with spring break, and of an America starting to change its mind about sexual mores. 

Vicarious Spring Break Fun: 5. Where the Boys Are offers a strange trip through time, back to a moment when young people apparently fantasized about a shirtless George Hamilton and the kooky charms of future Riddler Frank Gorshin, and spent part of spring break dressing up in fancy clothes and attending fancy nightclubs.

Spring Break (1983)

Spring break’s popularity only grew in the years after Where the Boys Are (and in part because of Where the Boys Are’s success), but it went largely undocumented on film. That changed in the early 1980s when the surprise success of the Canadian-made sex comedy Porky’s sent the demand for teen-friendly, R-rated T&A movies to go through the roof. Spring break in Fort Lauderdale was, of course, a natural setting for sexy, booze-soaked hijinks, and who better to provide some than the director of Friday the 13th

Sean S. Cunningham’s film follows a couple of pasty wimps to Fort Lauderdale, where they’re forced to share a room with a couple of cool, tough guys from Brooklyn. The arrangement doesn’t seem to be working out all that well when, early on, the Brooklynites kick them out of bed to have sex with a couple of co-eds. But soon the nerds learn to be a little more assertive and enjoy themselves.

Spring Break is as leering in its own way as Friday the 13th, but without the decapitations. It also captures a moment in Fort Lauderdale history when spring break had become less a seasonal interruption than the local industry. The foxy boxing and wet T-shirt contests might offer voyeuristic thrills, but they also play like a bit of a joyless grind, a nightly show put on for an endless parade of tourists with too much money to spend. You can almost hear the soul leaving the body of an announcer who tells a raucous crowd, “all these couples have to do is eat these bananas as erotically and as outrageously as possible” while offering play-by-play on a banana-eating “extravaganza.” 

Still, as one character notes, “Nothing is wrong with this. Nobody’s having a bad time. Nobody’s gotten hurt.” One character does have his pants stolen by an alligator, however, so there are some casualties.

Vicarious Spring Break Fun: 6. Spring Break gets some extra points for being as unpretentious as its title, offering down-and-dirty spring break thrills. It also looks better in comparison to other movies of its era. Fraternity Vacation, for instance, features frat bros competing to bed a blonde beauty by telling her outrageous lies and filming her bedroom through a telescope. “We really should not be doing this. This could be interpreted as perverted behavior,” one of them notes. Yeah. Duh. (Worth noting: A young Tim Robbins stars as a character named Larry “Mother” Tucker.) 

On a somewhat similar note, more or less lost in the wave of early 1980s spring break movies was a quasi-remake called Where the Boys Are ’84.

Nightmare Beach (a.k.a. Welcome to Spring Break) (1989)

There’s always potential for trouble any time so many people gather in one place with unfettered access to booze. Throw a serial killer into the mix and it gets that much worse. This nasty but effective slasher movie watches as a helmet-clad biker with a motorcycle specially equipped to electrocute passengers spreads mayhem through a Florida beach town. Could it be the reincarnated spirit of a biker wrongfully executed for a crime the previous year? Maybe it’s a tough-talking sheriff played by John Saxon? Or perhaps a suspicious doctor played by Michael Parks? Maybe none of the above?

Apart from the appropriately grody kills, the best bits of Nightmare Beach concern the town’s Jaws-like attempts to cover up the murders to avoid taking an economic hit should spring break get cancelled. It both echoes our current moment, when we waited too long to address a looming threat in the hopes of keeping the economy afloat, and shows how big a business spring break had become by the end of the 1980s. Without the yearly influx of partying college kids, the town is screwed. A little death then might just come with the territory.

Vicarious Spring Break Fun: 4. There’s not a lot of traditional spring break fun to be found in Nightmare Beach, but it’s a pretty effective thriller packed with always reliable character actors, 1980s heavy metal music and memorable death scenes. (Italian genre stalwart Umberto Lenzi signed on to direct it. Accounts vary as to how much work he did on the film, but the suspense scenes suggest a sure hand.) If that sounds appealing, it might make quarantine go a little faster.

From Justin to Kelly (2003)

For a few years in the early 2000s, American Idol all but took over pop culture, influencing both television and the pop charts. The quickly produced From Justin to Kelly, however, proved its grip didn’t extend to the multiplexes. The show’s first-season contracts included a provision that the winner and runner-up had to star in a movie to be made not long after the season’s end. It’s hard to see those conditions leading to a good movie under any circumstances. Yet From Justin to Kelly turned out far worse than anyone could have expected.

Directed by Robert Iscove (She’s All That) and written by Kim Fuller (the brother of Idol creator Simon Fuller; his credits also include Spice World), From Justin to Kelly pairs winner Kelly Clarkson and runner-up Justin Guarini as, respectively, Kelly and Justin, two college students visiting an extremely PG-rated version of Fort Lauderdale during spring break. He’s there with his buds in the “Pennsylvania Posse.” She’s there with future Tony winner and Dreamgirls star Anika Noni Rose and an awful “friend” named Alexa (Katherine Bailess). 

Justin and Kelly meet and like each other, but Alexa keeps intercepting Justin’s text messages and finding other ways to keep them apart over the course of the film’s 81-minute running time. Eventually, they perform a duet on a boat (Clarkson performs while wearing a skirt made of ties). “I cried,” Clarkson told the Los Angeles Times in 2019, speaking of her experience making the movie. It’s not hard to see why.

Vicarious Spring Break Fun: 2. By 2003, late-night cable had become choked with ads for Joe Francis’ Girls Gone Wild, a series of videos featuring uncensored spring break debauchery. From Justin to Kelly includes a scene in which Kelly becomes deeply offended at the thought of a whipped cream bikini contest. There’s pleasure to be had in watching a movie this unfailingly awful, but little in the way of spring break thrills.

Piranha 3D (2010)

Where the Boys Are helped popularize spring break in the 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, MTV’s annual spring break trip — and the aforementioned Girls Gone Wild — helped cement its reputation as an event where anything goes and the rules of the regular world don’t apply. They also helped establish destinations for spring break beyond Florida, like the Arizona lake that serves as the setting for Alexandre Aja’s semi-remake of the Joe Dante classic Piranha. 

Here, a school of deadly piranhas tear through unsuspecting revelers, including a Joe Francis-inspired sleazebag played by Jerry O’Connell. Aja’s film provides a little something for everyone, from gratuitous (occasionally underwater) nudity to gushers of blood (and its first viewers got to see it all in 3D). It has all the excesses of actual spring break and all the cartoonish gore anyone looking for a mostly-tongue-in-cheek scarefest could want (plus a cast that includes Adam Scott and Paul Scheer, sure signals it’s not to be taken all that seriously).

Vicarious Spring Break Fun: 7. Assuming you’re not squeamish, this is probably as close to the real spring break as you can get from home, capturing the excitement of a night of partying and the terrifying hangover of the day after. And if the idea of actually going to spring break sounds like hell on earth, the movie just confirms that point of view.

Spring Breakers (2012)

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, on the other hand, is pretty much all hangover. Like Where the Boys Are, it follows four college women on a spring break trip to Florida. Unlike Where the Boys Are, however, it features loads of sex, drugs, violence and James Franco-delivered monologues inviting the spring breakers to look at his shit. Franco plays Alien, a dealer/rapper who draws the already wayward foursome (played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) deeper into a life of crime.

Korine directs as if trying to simulate their intoxicated state and mostly succeeds. Alien’s lifestyle is ugly, but seductive, and his hypnotic invitation to enjoy “sprang break forever” comes to make a certain amount of sense. Why not just chuck it all, get high and live off easy drug money? Why go back to college at all?

Vicarious Spring Break Fun: Impossible to gauge. On the other hand, things don’t work out all that well for Alien and his followers by the end of the movie. In some ways, Spring Breakers isn’t that different from Where the Boys Are in spite of the years and shifts in attitude dividing them. Korine’s film offers the promise of escape and excess without consequence beneath the Florida sun, then eventually reveals itself as a morality tale that cautions viewers from straying from the straight and narrow. When the party ends, not everyone gets out alive. Maybe we’re better off staying home after all.

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