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Movies

Movie Review

‘Spring Breakers’ is mesmerizing

I derive no small pleasure from the thought of America’s youth flocking to see “Spring Breakers” expecting — well, what you’d expect a film called “Spring Breakers” to be — and finding instead a savage assault on every empty thought they hold dear.

At first glimpse, the movie is frat-comedy business as usual: images of half-clad college kids reveling in slow motion on the beaches of St. Petersburg, Fla. But the shots are held too long and the faces are dull-eyed and grotesque; the beer tubes and bong hits and naked breasts shade from bacchanalian to robotic. We seem to have left MTV’s spring break and entered David Lynch’s.

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Actually, this universe belongs to Harmony Korine, the brat provocateur whose previous movies — including 1995’s “Kids” (which he only wrote but everyone gives him credit for anyway), 1997’s “Gummo,” and 2009’s “Trash Humpers” — have enraged proper-thinking audiences and critics while building a small, devoted base of cult followers. With the nominally mainstream “Spring Breakers,” count me in. Korine wants to give us a portrait of our nation’s children — the girls, especially — as beautifully depraved sharks, pleasure-seeking killers oblivious to the comedy and horror of their existence. And damned if he doesn’t pull it off, or come close enough.

The cheapest subversion in “Spring Breakers” — although it’s still pretty effective — is the casting of a handful of our leading TV innocents in lead roles. Selena Gomez of Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place” plays Faith, an evangelical good girl dreaming of going bad, while Ashley Benson of ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars” and Vanessa Hudgens of Disney’s “High School Musical” franchise are, respectively, Brit and Candy, the soulless collegiate party rats with whom Faith hooks up. (The director’s wife, Rachel, plays Cotty, the most slatternly member of the crew.)

What’s shocking isn’t the sight of Hudgens — whose Disney persona was rigidly virginal — sucking on bongs and drawing penii on her class notes. Rather it’s the dreamy, candy-colored ferocity of the filmmaking. Every moment in “Spring Breakers” feels like an eternal Now that never satisfies; the only moving force is toward the next druggy thrill. Faith’s musings on freedom and happiness — half-baked adolescent poetry — echo on the soundtrack like banal Facebook posts.

Short of money to get to St. Pete, the girls steal a car and rob a restaurant (Korine’s camera peers through the windows from outside: It’s the getaway-car angle). Assault with a deadly weapon and grand theft auto? OMG! After a few days of sybaritic partying — during which Faith thinks she’s found a new Eden and Cotty comes close enough to getting raped to make you shrink from the screen — the cops bust a motel party and the four spend a night in jail. They’re bailed out by Alien, a local drug dealer/wannabe rapper with greasy cornrows and really bad grills.

It may take you a few minutes to realize you’re watching James Franco. Yes, I’m pretty sick of him, too, but not after this; the role isn’t a comeback so much as a doubling down. He plays Alien like a street-corner snake charmer — Oz, the small and sleazy — oozing bravado as he seduces the girls into his orbit. Yet the brilliance of the performance is that the character’s barely up to his own badass myth. At first I thought this might have been a better role for Matthew McConaughey until I realized Franco is playing Alien as if he were McConaughey’s kid brother. He’s dangerous but he also wants to be dangerous, and it’s that puppyish need that weakens him.

The girls, particularly Brit and Candy, don’t want to be dangerous. They just are, and “Spring Breakers” evolves into a sort of over-the-top staring contest, in which the first person to break concentration ends up on the bus back home. (The mid-movie standoff between Alien and Faith is a nervy high point and may be the best acting Gomez will ever do.)

Korine likes the poetics of transgression, and he trowels on the bad behavior with a heavy but mesmerizing hand. “Spring Breakers” is pregnant with imminent violence; characters wallow in cash and guns; cocaine gets snorted off every surface imaginable and a few unimaginable. It’s Too Much and often just too much. Korine has seen an awful lot of Jean-Luc Godard’s ’60s movies (I don’t think you can see too many), and his borrowed Pop Art devices — repetitive voice-overs, gunshots and barrel clicks as aural counterpoint, mechanistic nods to 1983’s “Scarface” — turn wearyingly familiar before the end.

James Franco as Alien.

Michael Muller/A24

James Franco as Alien.

He’s still going where few American filmmakers dare: right into America’s hedonistic heart of darkness. “Spring Breakers” is the horror movie glimpsed behind “Superbad” and “21 and Over” and all those other celebrations of the right to party yourself into a coma. The movie says that if this is what your culture sells you, these are the kids you’ll end up with.

Yet it’s anything but a lecture, or even a cautionary tale, and it stands to infuriate parents and other moral guardians as much as it discombobulates their children. Korine loves his pretty little animals the way a renegade zoologist loves the lemmings he studies as they mate and chew pieces off each other and eventually jump straight off the cliff.

At a certain point, after Alien has entered into a street war with a rival gangbanger (rapper Gucci Mane) and before Brit and Candy don pink, unicorn-emblazoned ski masks and pick up assault rifles, the film spirals off the page into possible fantasy. Is any of this really happening? Or is it all a college girl’s daydream as she sits doodling in a lecture hall?

Neither, or both — it doesn’t really matter, not when Korine is having Alien and the girls sing Britney Spears’s “Everytime” (to them it’s an oldie) at an outdoor grand piano before engaging in a swimming pool orgy that feels surreal to the point of anatomical impossibility. There’s much more (and less) than Tarantino-style cleverness going on here; Korine delivers a teenage apocalypse that’s shocking and stupid and exhilarating and tender in equal measure. “Spring Breakers” fuses our worst nightmares and most reckless dreams of freedom until the two become indistinguishable.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.
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