Spring Breakers: Disney Channel Girls Gone Wild

Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens shake beaucoup booty in outlaw auteur Harmony Korine's lurid parody-tribute to MTV mindlessness

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“Bikinis and big booties, y’all,” proclaims a Tampa dude known as Alien (James Franco). “That’s what life is about.” At least during the months-long rite of passion known as spring break. Needing little urging from the gentlemen on Florida’s Gulf Coast, young women booze on the beach, merrily expose their siliconed breasts and fellate red-white-and-blue lollipops, all to fulfill the hedonistic edicts of Girls Gone Wild videos and MTV. They act silly; you can watch.

Three college girls, stuck at school and short on cash, simply must be in Tampa, so they don ski masks and rap-master gestures and rob the patrons of a Chicken Shack. “Don’t be scared,” the girls tell themselves before the big heist. “Pretend it’s a f—in’ video game. Pretend you’re in a movie.”

(MORE: TIME’s Cannes review of Kids)

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers operates under two pretenses: that it’s a more extreme version of spring-break movies that stretch back at least a half-century, to the sedate dating of the 1960 Where the Boys Are; and that it’s a satire of the whole genre — indeed, of the American dream of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and eternal nubility. But the movie, the most accessible in the oeuvre of the 39-year-old who really was an enfant terrible when he wrote the script for Larry Clark’s teen-AIDS outrage Kids back in the early ’90s, has too much fun exploiting the milieu it may mean to be mocking. It’s a canny mixture of satire and sell-out, if there’s even any difference between the two in a movie age where excess and irony have become incestuous twins.

Selena Gomez plays the pointedly named Faith, part of a Christian sect and friend of the girls who pulled the robbery. She’s known them for years, she tells her skeptical evangelical cohorts; they’re good people. The Christians were right: these girls are the demon spawn, ready to party their way into jail, once they get to Tampa. There they are bailed out by Alien, who takes them on as his posse in a turf battle with archrival Archie (rapper Gucci Mane). Faith sees the light and heads for home; another girl takes a bullet; and the remaining pair turn out to be gunslingers of the most violent order.

Say this for the writer-director: he scored three artistic coups, none of them having much to do with what’s on screen. He signed Franco, the workaholic Oscar nominee and (catastrophic) Oscar host, to play the gangsta drugsta Alien. He corralled three young graduates of well-scrubbed TV shows — Selena Gomez, from the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, Vanessa Hudgens of Disney’s High School Musical films and Ashley Benson of the ABC Family Channel’s Pretty Little Liars — to dance around in skimpies and, two of them, to mime smoking dope and lesbonic kissing. And he persuaded the programmers of the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals to play Spring Breakers alongside new films by Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of The Iceman with James Franco)

Why would that be? Could it be that august institution, the international film festival, will take any movie if its cast includes a teen-dream star? At Cannes this year, High School Musical’s Zac Efron and The Twilight Saga’s Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (separately) showed up to promote their films in the competition. Efron was at Venice with At Any Price. And on Wednesday, Gomez, sporting neither her purity ring nor her sometime beau Justin Bieber, was seen taking a water-taxi speedboat across the waters that separate Venice from the Lido, where the festival takes place. The paparazzi took shots sent round the world, and the question of selling out became larger and murkier.

Not that a pop-art junk movie like Spring Breakers shouldn’t get some festival exposure as an aid to securing theatrical release. The movie does reveal an actual artist at work: French cinematographer Benoît Debie, who filmed Gaspar Noé’s truly transgressive Irreversible and Enter the Void. Saturating the images with a neon tinge, and supervising a sensational reverse-crane shot of revelers by the hundreds at a pool party, Debie gives Spring Breakers a great look, even if the movie’s mind is pretty much wasted.

Destructive kids with wasted minds was the subject of Korine’s last effort, the suicidal-career movie Trash Humpers, which The Village Voice‘s J. Hoberman described as “a spectacle to be watched in a wino stupor” (and he meant that as a compliment). This 2009 movie showed young renegades in old-people masks doing rude things, including purporting to have sex with trash bin, to live out their motto to “Make it, make it, don’t fake it.” Trash Humpers at least had the artistic courage of its own lunatic convictions, but Spring Breakers is all surface and sham; it’s trash about humpers.

(Venice Film Festival: Follow TIME’s Complete 2012 Coverage)

The gangster and humpster-in-chief here is Franco, bringing an insane, intoxicating level of commitment to the role of Alien (real name: Al). Sporting elaborate cornrows, and front teeth studded with more grillwork than a ’58 Plymouth, Franco is a man in love with his stuff: his gun-bedecked walls, his bed “that’s an art-piece,” his constantly running loop of the 1983 Florida crime classic Scarface. (Maybe he never got to the end of the movie.) When Alien sits at his grand piano and plays Britney Spears’ “Everytime” as the girls cavort in pink ski masks, Spring Breakers nearly achieves the sense of delirium it wants to instill in its gawkers. This pretense of a movie finally becomes one.

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