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Movie review: 'Spring Breakers' isn't bright and sunny at all

Spring Breakers

Director: Harmony Korine

Cast: James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez

Rated: R (strong sexual content, strong language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout)

Running time: 94 min.

Posted 9:13pm on Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013

Spring Breakers will separate moviegoers into warring camps.

On the one side are the multiplex multitudes who may be attracted by the teen-romp title and the presence of Vanessa Hudgens and North Texas sweetheart Selena Gomez, thinking that this is going to be just some mildly salacious, breezily disposable date-night fodder.

On the other side are the cult-film connoisseurs familiar with the work of director/writer Harmony Korine, screenwriter for Larry Clark's controversial 1995 film Kids and director of such oddly titled works as Trash Humpers (about a group of very strange elderly people) and Gummo (about a group of very strange small-town folk).

While Korine defenders may be ready for his subversion, even they may not be entirely prepared for the pop-culture brilliance that is Spring Breakers, a manic mash-up of last year's teensploitation, housetrashing opus Project X, Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers and a Girls Gone Wild video. Only Spring Breakers has the added bonus of a transcendent performance from James Franco, who makes up for his recent cinematic sins like Oz the Great and Powerful and Your Highness. If all that sounds horrifying, then stay far, far away.

Candy (Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony's wife) and Brit (Ashley Benson) are three bored college women at some nameless university who don't have enough money to take the spring-break vacation of their dreams. Raised in a world where delayed gratification is as foreign a concept as Euclidean geometry, they decide to hold up a fast-food joint.

Flush with cash, they head for Florida's St. Petersburg Beach, with their more straight-laced but equally bored friend, Faith (Gomez), in tow. Once there, they make it rain in a cloudburst of alcohol, pot, cocaine and drunken, shirtless dudes pumpin' their fists to an endless loop of dubstep and hip-hop.

It's all fun and games -- until it isn't. This is when the film, which Harmony Korine begins in a leisurely style that sometimes feels more like an R-rated music video, takes a turn to the dark side.

The girls are arrested and then bailed out by a man they don't know who goes by the name of Alien (Franco). With his hair in cornrows and grills on his teeth, Franco disappears into the role of a small-time hustler and gun-toting gangster who preys on naive spring breakers. He displays a loose-limbed intensity that is both frightening and ferociously funny.

But Candy, Cotty and Brit don't play the victims to his predator. They know exactly what he's up to and don't care as they get sucked into his world of beatdowns and braggadocio, becoming his ride-or-die accomplices.

Harmony Korine displays a playful visual eye as the many party scenes become a beachfront Hieronymus Bosch orgy of sex and skin. He also possesses a good ear, with Skrillex's dubstep mainstay Scary Monters and Nice Sprites part of a booming soundtrack of beer-soaked seduction and wanton criminality.

Rachel Korine, Benson and Hudgens (who already stepped out of the High School Musical shadow with the ambitious but failed Sucker Punch) show off a compelling sense of their growing thuggish empowerment. As for Gomez, she doesn't have much to do but cry and wish to go home; she's gone from the movie once things start to get really nasty, so her clean image isn't sullied too much.

Yet it's Franco's performance, swollen with chest-pumping swagger and street-corner ambition, that you remember.

That's something people on both sides of the Spring Breakers divide can agree upon.

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