Having been an enfant terrible for half his life, indie provocateur Harmony Korine knows his way around a youth-in-crisis movie. The 40-year-old filmmaker broke out in 1995 with his controversial screenplay for "Kids," an amoral, crudely sensational account of under-age sex and drug abuse by teen New York City street gangs. After multiple microscopic arthouse experiments he's back in your face and at your throat with a juvenile-delinquent story that can stand alongside "Pixote," "River's Edge" and "13."
Korine's "Spring Breakers" is "Girls Gone Wild" meets "Natural Born Killers" with a chaser of social satire. This time the kids are a little older (college students who should know better), the body count, budget and star power are higher. Grinning villain James Franco trowels sleaze across Disney Channel sweethearts Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, ABC Family's Ashley Benson, and Korine's young wife, Rachel. Korine turns Tampa into a diseased theme park of the imagination.
The actresses play prayerful brunette Faith and her wild child blonde BFFs Candy, Brit and Cotty. They don't seem to be learning much in their nameless alma mater (a darkened lecture hall where every face is lit by its own glowing laptop suggests a catacomb for deceased minds). The girls do know that they need, deserve, must have a debauched March getaway.
The three blondes stick up a Chicken Shack with a squirt gun, a sledge hammer and a lot of nerve. Faith doesn't participate in the heist, but she goes along for the giddy, excessive ride from Nowheresville to Florida, ingesting every mood-altering substance known to the Sunshine State.
The girls' defiant quest for independence and adventure quickly sours. The montage of bangin' young bodies, rivers of booze and bricks of dope might look like Nirvana for a minute, but Korine firmly pushes our noses in the scene's squalid stupidity. Arrested on drug charges, the coeds are bailed out by smalltime drug thug Alien (Franco). Faith flees for the safety of her hometown prayer circle, while Alien spins his web around the remaining three. He tries to impress them with his gangsta tattoos, cornrows, tacky Camaro convertible and gun collection, inviting them into his cracked vision of the American dream.
But he's underestimated these ambitious girls. They know something about using their sexuality for power, turning the tables and making him simulate oral sex on handguns.
"I think I just fell in love," he gasps, recruiting his dream girls for a showdown with a much better-armed dealer, Archie (rapper Gucci Mane). Candy and Britt slip into lime bikinis and pink ski masks, grab machine pistols and invade the enemy fortress alongside Alien.
"Pretend like it's a video game," the girls tell each other. "Act like you're in a movie." The violence, when it comes, shocks and awes because the beauty of the earlier scenes held you with such hypnotic power. Apt students, Candy and Britt ultimately surpass Alien, tooling back to school in a tangerine Lamborghini.
Don't mistake this for an ad pushing the gangster lifestyle. "Spring Breakers" traffics in visceral thrills, but doesn't side with its pretty young nihilists. When the girls fire bullets into human flesh as if they were playing "Call of Duty," we don't feel the same visceral thrill the girls evidently do. If you do get off on those exploitative images I hope you are reading this from inside something that has a good strong lock.
Still, the craft brought to bear on this fever dream is undeniable. Belgian cinematographer Benoit Debie gives us exquisitely composed shots, impressionistic plays of shadow and orchestrated hues of brake-light reds, marine blues and arsenic greens. The sonic pulse is beat-heavy dance floor noise from Skrillex. By turns gonzo and ghastly, this youth culture nightmare is deliberately structured to feel like a party that's gone on too long. You may enjoy parts of the ride but you're grateful for the exits.
Rated R for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout.
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Starring James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine and Gucci Mane. Directed by Harmony Korine. Rated R (92 minutes)