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Provocative, Satirically Pointed SPRING BREAKERS Stands As Harmony Korine’s Best Work

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“Spring Breakers” is hard to articulate into words. That’s meant as the biggest compliment, not only to the film itself but to writer-director Harmony Korine (who wrote 1995’s controversial “Kids” at just age 19). A divisive, rule-breaking provocateur that many will refer to as an enfant terrible next to Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard, and John Waters, Korine makes films that go one of two ways—they are either artlessly exploitative pieces of ego-stroking junk (1997’s “Gummo” and 2009’s “Trash Humpers”) or hypnotic, unforgettable pieces of art (his latest). Simultaneously transgressive and transcendent as a film can get, “Spring Breakers” might be the closest Korine will ever get to making a mainstream film. Mind you, it’s as R-rated as R-rated can get before it would slip into NC-17 territory. It’s shocking, satirically pointed, poignant, and head and shoulders above anything else independent cinema’s bad boy has ever done.

Opening with a slo-mo montage of bikini-clad (or topless) female spring breakers gyrating and fellating on popsicles, along with shirtless young men beer-bonging, and ultimately having the time of their lives, the film feels like a sleazy, voyeuristic “Girls Gone Wild” video mixed with a rap music video. It’s at once amusing and unsettling, treating the ritual of college revelry without repercussions as a nightmare, and that’s just in the opening minutes. The decadence is calling when Faith (Selena Gomez) wants to escape the doldrums of college-dorm life for the chance to see something different. Girlfriends with Faith since kindergarten, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) want to get away even more, so they rob a restaurant with squirt guns and sledgehammers for some extra cash and take a bus to spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida. Indulging in a rowdy orgy of booze, coke, and sex and feeling like this is where they belong, the four girls are then arrested. Enter their savior, a money-makin’ wannabe gangsta rapper/hustler named Alien (James Franco), who bails them out and takes them under his wing. Faith has a bad feeling about him, but the other three, especially the inseparable Candy and Brit, were meant for this lifestyle.

On the sexy, splashy surface, it will be a selling point to see a wild teensploitation with Disney darlings Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens stretching their acting chops to extremes and a debaucherous “woo!” party of T&A, booze, and drugs. That titillation or curiosity factor might be a gimmick, but Korine isn’t operating on trashy exploitation alone. There is a point beyond the shock value by cogently commenting on the empty-headed hedonism, MTV-derived conformity, and the warped, sociopathic meaning of celebrity in this generation. Underneath all the fun in the sun and 24/7 bacchanalia is an ugly, rotten underbelly, but some of these girls see spring break as the American Dream.

“This is not what I signed up for!” Faith cries out to her friends before hopping on a bus home. We feel the same way, as one may think they’re getting a more artsy “Project X” but Korine isn’t glorifying such excessive behavior as much as he’s condemning it. “Spring Breakers” might seem like an aggressively in-your-face exercise that’s much ado about nothing, but therein lies the point: If these girls represent America’s future, our society is going to hell in a handbasket. Like a genius filmmaker only knows how, Korine uses his neon-colored imagery and propulsive sounds as a filmic language to confidently craft a nightmarish, disorienting, and unpredictable fever dream.

Stylized through the indelibly throbbing electronic score by Cliff Martinez (“Drive”) and Skrillex, and the hallucinatory, mesmerizing cinematography by Benoît Debie (“Enter the Void”), the viewer can palpably feel the hazy, ultimately numbing high that these girls experience. To an even more immersive, impactful degree, Korine manipulates film stocks and uses repetition with shots that foreshadow later scenes, voice-overs, the whispers of “spring break…,” and gun-cocking sound effects. In an ironic juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, Faith calls her grandmother to tell her spring break is “the most spiritual place” where “everyone’s sweet,” while the real experience is anything but. Candy and Brit do the same, calling their mothers to tell them that they’re trying to be the best they can be. There’s also an evocatively executed montage of carnage set to Britney Spears’ pop ballad “Everytime,” played by Alien on his baby grand piano as the gun-toting girls don pink ski masks and fire away. It’s as poetic as it is disturbing, just like the rest of the film.

All appearing in two-piece bikinis most of the time, Gomez (TV’s “Wizards of Waverly Place”) and Hudgens (the “High School Musical” movies), as well as Benson (TV’s “Pretty Little Liars”) and Korine (the filmmaker’s wife) undauntedly push themselves to the edge. If these young ladies want to erase their squeaky-clean image, this will do it. As portrayed by Gomez, Faith is the good, churchgoing girl of the bunch and the only one with much moral fiber, while Hudgens and Benson are so capable of selling the freedom and invincibility their characters feel, it’s almost frightening (“Just pretend like it’s a video game,” Candy says before their robbery). After appearing in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” Franco, going for broke with cornrows, tattoos, and a shiny grill in his mouth, isn’t in Kansas anymore. As the self-proclaimed Alien, who claims to not be from this planet, has always dreamed of being bad, and watches “Scarface” on repeat, he’s equally dangerous, seductive, and vulnerable in an off-the-wall, truly inspired performance, one that just proves he’s a chameleon of his craft. Nobody else could have made Alien—or his life mantras, “Bikinis and big booties, y’all! That’s what life is about!” and “Spring break forever!”—completely believable as Franco does.

A shock to the system, one hell of a trip, and a film that’s actually about something, “Spring Breakers” shakes you up, lingers in your mind, and might even outrage many who miss the point. Love it or hate it, one will probably never forget it. Mission accomplished, Mr. Korine.

97 min., rated R.
Grade: A