(by Dustin Putman
"Spring Breakers" is fated to be misunderstood. Some will call it a flashy, R-rated gimmick solely because it features former Disney stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in roles of a decidedly more risqué nature. Others will view it as an empty exercise in hedonism. Many will flock to see it just for the kick of watching scantily-clad beauties parade around while drinking to excess, having sex, and packing heat in a temperate climate. All of the above will be grossly missing the point. As written and directed by fiercely independent virtuoso Harmony Korine (1997's "Gummo"), the picture captures and, in some cases, satirizes the trashy-cum-decadent allure of a modern spring break excursion while pointedly critiquing the rampant desensitization over our current pop-, gangsta-, criminal-as-celebrity-culture. A journey toward illusory freedom that ends up a glowing neon nightmare, "Spring Breakers" takes the presumed self-enlightenment of four nubile college friends and drives them straight to a hell they soon will not be able to escape from. It's amusing, maybe a little forlorn underneath that, and ultimately chilling beyond belief. Article continues below
At an unnamed university in the middle of nowhere, nothing of excitement ever seems to occur. With spring break fast approaching, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are dismayed to find that they don't have nearly enough money saved up for their trip. One chicken shack robbery involving ski masks, water guns and sledgehammers later, they are off for the beaches of St. Petersburg with naïve Christian pal Faith (Selena Gomez) in tow. The four of them live it up and party hard until they're suddenly arrested and face jail time. Not about to get their families involved, the four are unexpectedly bailed out by resident townie Alien (James Franco), a drug dealer and aspiring rap artist who lurks around the city like a specter and fast takes the girls under his wing. Faith doesn't like where things are going—"This is not how it was supposed to be," she says—but will she be able to break free before Alien sends Candy, Brit and Cotty on a spring break certain to change, and potentially end, their lives forever?
Deceptively light-hearted at the onset, opening with a montage of hard-drinking revelers doing body shots, flashing breasts, and sucking on red, white and blue popsicles with their legs cocked open, the ramped-up debauchery on view in "Spring Breakers" wraps itself in Cliff Martinez's (2011's "Drive") and Skrillex's propulsive score and Douglas Crise's (2012's "Arbitrage") masterfully disconcerting editorial tornado, resulting in an eerie, ceaselessly portentous foreboding. The repetition of dialogue merges with a non-linear collection of images to create a vibrantly original storytelling motif, lines and shots that begin as unassuming asides gradually growing in haunting importance and disquieting peril. A youthful exclamation of liberation such as, "Spring break forever!" is transformed here into a threat both intoxicating and unremittingly creepy, with Alien lulling his female posse into submission as he falsely creates a fantasy of ghetto-cool invincibility. As convincing as Alien can be, he doesn't forcefully make the girls do anything; ultimately, it is their own choices that reveal who they really are, and unknowingly have always been.
Selena Gomez displayed an apple-cheeked sweetness in 2010's "Ramona and Beezus" and was overcome by a terrible script in 2011's "Monte Carlo," but her work here as Faith deserves, for all intents and purposes, to kick off a legitimate grown-up acting career. Playing a young woman who has always hid in comfort behind her religion and, now as an adult out on her own, has begun to question it, Gomez emanates a touching lost soulfulness that only deepens when her spring break of finding herself goes down a path she's not at all comfortable with. Though her screen time is fleeting in the second half, Gomez's quietly potent impact lingers over the proceedings. As uninhibited wild-child Cotty, Rachel Korine (Harmony's wife) is terrific, as well, her character using her body as a tease to get attention until things become all too real. Korine's gift lies just as much in what isn't said than what is, her sadness shining through both the haze of booze being poured on her and the final act of strength and courage she exhibits. One can only hope the latter is a sign of what her future holds, but who knows for sure? Vanessa Hudgens (2012's "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island") and Ashley Benson (2004's "13 Going on 30") effectively fill out the quartet of bikini-wearing leading ladies as Candy and Brit, a duo in and of themselves who only need each other to go down a road they shouldn't. When the robbery that sends them on spring break, initially shot silently from outside the restaurant windows, is revisited later on in all its crude and violent authenticity, it's unnerving and informative of what they're capable of.
If the Floridian beach town of St. Petersburg is shot by cinematographer Benoît Debie (2010's "Enter the Void") as a kaleidoscope of sunshine and sunsets vaguely shielding the grimmest of underbellies, it is James Franco's fearless, note-perfect performance that accentuates said threat. In the wrong hands, his Alien—all cornrows, tattoos and mouth grills—could have come off as a ridiculous caricature not to be bought for a second. Franco anchors this sleazy, off-beat character in something darker and more honest, however, a guy who somehow gets off on acting as mentor and negative influence on girls younger and less experienced than him. When Alien takes to the piano to demonstrate his softer side, breaking out into the Britney Spears ballad "Everytime" as the gals dance flirtatiously around him, it is a sequence of startling power, humor turning to poignancy and poignancy turning to imminent menace in veritable flashes—not because of Alien, per se, but from the troublesome possibilities of all their fates. From a "shit"-laden tour of his house to a provocative scene involving the sucking of a loaded pistol to Alien's verbal molestation of Faith when she tells him she wants to go home, Franco is impossible to forget as he sends his role straight into the iconic cinematic lexicon.
"You're scared, aren't ya'? Scaredy cat," Brit and Candy goad at each other as they prepare to cross the point of no return. Grooving and grinding to a soundtrack of pop, dance and hip-hop beats, the party threatening to never stop even as it must, "Spring Breakers" is a return to top form for auteur Harmony Korine, his quirky, off-the-wall savvy breeding just enough commercialism to be aware that curious young audiences are going to be drawn to a film featuring their "Wizards of Waverly Place" and "High School Musical" idols alongside sex, drugs and the kind of rhapsodic climactic violence to make Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma weep with envy. Korine knew what he was doing when he cast the picture, but that doesn't take away the validity of the project, his script, or the bravura filmmaking command pulling all the pieces seductively together. As frightening as any conventional horror movie, as cautionary as any crime-drama, and as gritty yet empathetic as any coming-of-age story in quite some time, "Spring Breakers" traverses the search for identity in a cynical world with the care-free daze of youth passing all of us by much too quickly. "It seems like a dream," one of the girls says late in the film, her harsh reality patiently laying in wait. Very soon, she will come to grievously realize all dreams, eventually, come to an end.