***1/2 (out of four)
If we cut loose with friends on vacation, do we lose ourselves or become who we really are?
It's a big question generated in the unexpectedly great “Spring Breakers,” which, yeah, could be lazily dismissed as just an onslaught of boobs and naughty behavior—impressionistic debauchery that attempts to stylize many parents' worst nightmare. Yet the film is the rare exploration of identity that's likely to play repeatedly in dorm rooms and frat houses while also putting film classes to work.
I wouldn't necessarily call writer-director Harmony Korine's film high art. But it's what Gus Van Sant (“Elephant”) might make if MTV hired him. In “Spring Breakers,” ex-Disney commodities Selena Gomez (“Wizards of Waverly Place”) and Vanessa Hudgens (“High School Musical”) star with Ashley Benson (“Pretty Little Liars”) and Korine's wife, Rachel, as college girls who hit the Florida beach seeking pure, intoxicated escape.
Gomez and Hudgens have commented on doing this open-ended, divisively indulgent film to complicate their squeaky-clean image, and, bongs and bikinis abounding, they certainly succeed. Sample quote from Candy (Hudgens): “Seeing all this money makes my [bleep] wet.”
With about a thousand times more commitment than he showed in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a terrific James Franco plays a cornrows-and-grill-sporting hustler/rapper who goes by the name Alien and declares, “I'm from a different planet, y'all.” When the gals get busted and Alien—who's sure to have viewers shouting, “Sprang braaake!”—bails them out, he seems like the worst thing that could happen to them.
Or maybe they happen to him. Korine, a long way from despicable, undisciplined emptiness like “Gummo,” allows scenes to overlap and bounce to an exceptional score by Skrillex and “Drive” composer Cliff Martinez. Meanwhile, “Spring Breakers” plays with themes of power, need and the expectations of how its characters, perhaps only doing what they think pop culture long has told them to do, will behave. The deliberately named, religiously inclined Faith (Gomez) panics after the arrest, while the others take it in stride.
The film is neither a cautionary tale nor a slippery slope. Rather, it documents experiential fluidity, as fake guns turn into real ones and reality intrudes upon a situation that's meant to feel more like a dream.
Korine's camera ogles as befits the setting, where friendship means you’ll have someone to pee next to on the side of the road. To many, the story will feel both familiar and bizarre, and not just because Alien, allegedly inspired by real rapper Riff Raff (claims Riff Raff), plays an outdoor piano and leads the gals in a sing-along of “Everytime” by Britney Spears—whom he calls one of the greatest-ever pop stars.
That's debatable, as is “Spring Breakers” and its characters' escalating, borderline-intentional enabling of tragedy. Korine achieves an electric vision of self-discovery through chaos and rebellion against the tyranny of the safe and familiar. He hasn't just tapped into the youthful, throbbing pulse of the party—he's analyzed the dash between the wub-wub.
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