TORONTO — Throngs of people standing around in anticipation are cheap during this city’s international film festival, which ended Sunday. You see crowds outside of theaters and hotels and the occasional restaurant. Eventually, a few people grows into a mob. Sometimes the mob turns into a scene. A few nights ago, on King Street, outside the Prince of Wales Theater, there was the most intense screaming. The screamers were girls, and often you think a scene of girls screaming at a black SUV is the loudest screaming you’ve ever heard. Then you hear other girls screaming at an SUV and you think, “Nope this is it. These are loudest, non-life-threatening screams I’ve ever heard.”
I thought that as scores of girls became an IED of shrieking when Zac Efron got out of a car and posed for photos. It was so loud that it was almost morally embarrassing to hear that sort screaming and not at thinking about calling 9-1-1. Pandemonium follows Efron wherever he goes, and this year he’s taken the pandemonium to three prestigious film festivals — in May it was Cannes; a couple of weeks ago Venice — and the irony of all the craziness is the people going crazy aren’t yet old enough to buy a ticket to at least one of the two movies he’s been touring in support of.
“The Paperboy” is a juicy work of trash that puts him alongside Matthew McConaughey and beneath and atop Nicole Kidman. It’s the sort of movie, directed by Lee Daniels (“Precious”), that screaming girls should want to see (Efron wears white briefs and skimpy shorts or nearly nothing at all) but probably won’t. It’s the sort of movie that marks a transition for Efron from a pinup to possibly a star who’ll last, a star whose acting those girls’ parents will take seriously.
He’s not alone. This year, Toronto featured a few films with young actors trying material that either challenges their followings or themselves. The pop singer and former Disney Channel star Selena Gomez and Efron’s “High School Musical” costar Vanessa Hudgens are going for similar breakaways in the same trippy movie. “Spring Breakers” casts them as college friends desperate to join the campus-wide exodus for Florida, where days and nights of binge partying await. It’s alarming enough to see them high and drunk and making out with other young women, to hear them curse, to watch Hudgens and two other young women hold up a restaurant. But it’s surreal that they’re doing so for a filmmaker as notorious as Harmony Korine.
He has his defenders. I’d include myself among them. “Gummo,” from 1997, remains a kind of negative classic. It luxuriates in its impoverished backwoods setting, but there’s something authentic about it. Korine works along the border between cruel exploitation and freaky affinity. “Mister Lonely,” with its celebrity impersonators, was an emotional breakthrough in 2007. It was haunted and appreciably sad. “Trash Humpers,” in 2009, was like a horror-film version of “Jack-Ass.” When it premiered here, people walked out or, worse, they shrugged. But Korine was on to something — he wanted to make a kind of evil-prank proto-reality television. Its distressed, faux-found footage was scary and a little bit funny.
In theory, the idea of Gomez and Hudgens entering Korine’s lair is curious. You assume he’d have some point to make about the corruptibility of their innocuousness and inconsequentiality, about the waste and insanity of spring break as we know it. And he does. But after 15 minutes of watching Gomez’s good girl go baddish, it becomes so obvious what Korine is up to that you can almost finish the movie’s sentences, so to speak. He then brings in a gangsta-pimp played by James Franco, in cornrows, tattoos, grills on his teeth, and black-vernacular cadences. What was at least dangerous about “Spring Breakers” before Franco’s arrival becomes tedious and not unintentionally laughable with him on the scene. Gomez’s character becomes desperate to get out of there and back, presumably, to “The Wizards of Waverly Place.”
Efron fares better in his two films here. For it what it’s worth, unlike Gomez and Hudgens, more people will see him in his. (The other is “At Any Price,” an ensemble drama by the smart American independent director Ramin Bahrani, with Efron as a stock-car driver needed on his father’s farm.) It’s obvious Efron wants to grow in his craft. But it’s been a long time since an actor liberated himself from the contraints of adolescent idolatry and teenage fan clubs and became an adult star, an accomplished actor. Leonardo DiCaprio is the last. Efron doesn’t have DiCaprio’s talent. He’s still a performer who’s best when anger or petulance is required, but he’s trying to expand his fan base by bringing grownups into the fold. Gomez and Hudgens are just spitballing for credibility.
None of those movies figured into the festival’s audience awards, which were announced Sunday. But there is aspect of teen choice in the results. The documentary award went to “Artifact,” which follows Jared Leto and his popular band 30 Seconds to Mars as they make their third record. The most popular fiction feature was “Silver Linings Playbook,” an ensemble screwball comedy by David O. Russell (”The Fighter”) that features Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as two mentally ill Philadelphians whose personal messes become entangled.
“The Hunger Games” has turned Lawrence into a franchise star who also makes girls scream. But Russell’s movie is a real turning point for her talent. She’s sexy, yes. But she’s also funny, human, and warm. I don’t know that we’ll have Efron or Gomez in a few years, but Lawrence, who’s 22, is a star building a career that could last.