Provocative, shocking, pointed "Spring Breakers" shakes you up and lingers in your mind

Spring Breakers (2013)
94 min., rated R.

"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, Lars von Trier, 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 unforgettable pieces of art that hypnotically marry image and sound (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 vividly shocking, alive, 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 drinking beer, gyrating with shirtless jocks, fellating red, white and blue popsicles, and ultimately having the time of their lives, the film appears to be a sleazy, voyeuristic "Girls Gone Wild" video mixed with an uncensored dubstep music video. It's at once crudely amusing and unsettling, treating the ritual of college revelry without repercussions as a sun-drenched 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 the local Chicken Shack with squirt guns and sledgehammers for some extra cash and take a bus to St. Petersburg, Florida, for spring break. 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 grows uncomfortable and has a bad feeling about him, but the other three, especially the inseparable Candy and Brit, were meant for this morally loose, crime-infested lifestyle.

On the flashy, sexed-up 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 subliminal point beyond the shock value by cogently commenting on the empty-headed hedonism, MTV-derived conformity, cultural desensitization, and the warped, sociopathic meaning of celebrity, "ghetto" and "cool" in this generation of entitled youth. Underneath all the fun in the sun and 24/7 bacchanalia is an ugly, rotten underbelly and what's so chilling is that these girls see spring break as the American Dream. "This is not what I signed up for!" Faith later cries out to her friends before hopping on a bus home. We feel the same way, as one may think they're just getting an artsy-fartsy "Project X," but Korine isn't glorifying such excessive behavior as much as he's critiquing it as a mood piece. There's an actual method to his madness. "Spring Breakers" might seem like an overdone, aggressively in-your-face exercise that's much ado about nothing, but as the darkest and most unapologetically profane of cautionary tales for the here and now, therein lies a 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, free-flowing imagery and propulsive sounds as his own filmic language to confidently craft a nightmarish, disorienting, and unpredictable fever dream. 

With the film being 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 experimental, experiential, fully 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 violent 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 join him in committing crimes. It's as poetic and balletic as it is powerfully disturbing, just like the rest of the film.

All appearing in bikinis most of the time, Selena Gomez (TV's "Wizards of Waverly Place") and Vanessa Hudgens (the "High School Musical" movies), as well as Ashley Benson (TV's "Pretty Little Liars") and Rachel 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 with a touching empathy, Faith is the good, churchgoing girl of the bunch and the only one with much moral fiber, while Hudgens and Benson are so fearless and capable of selling the freedom and badass invincibility their characters feel, it's frightening ("Just pretend like it's a video game," Candy says before their robbery). After appearing in "Oz the Great and Powerful," James 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 creepy, dangerous, seductive, and vulnerable in an off-the-wall, bravely uninhibited and truly inspired performance, one that just proves he's a chameleon of his craft. Nobody else could have made Alienor his life mantras, "Bikinis and big booties, y'all! That's what life is about!" and "Spring break forever!"completely believable as Franco does.

An intoxicating shock to the system, one hell of a trip, and an audacious filmic blend of art and commerce that's actually about something, "Spring Breakers" shakes you up, lingers in your mind, and might even outrage many who miss the point. It's one of those misunderstood films that is not so easy to label or categorize, nor should it be when so many are misguided in their marketing anyway. Love it or hate it, one will probably never forget it. Mission accomplished, Harmony.