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Movie review: Disney girls go bad in 'Spring Breakers'

Published March 23, 2013 3:13 pm

Review • Straddling line between art and exploitation.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" is such a perfect object of its cultural moment — an age of sexualized youth and stylized violence — that it's a shame it's not a better movie.

And that may be the first and last time anyone uses the word "shame" in connection with Korine's self-consciously taboo-breaking drama.

Korine begins with images of spring break on the Florida coast — repeated (and repetitive) shots of hunky young men and buxom young women jumping around in the surf, sucking down multiple beers. The women shake their butts and occasionally bare their breasts, while the guys thrust their pelvises like they know what to do with them. The scene is every college kid's dream and every parent's nightmare.

To our movie's four young heroines — Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine) and Faith (Selena Gomez) — spring break isn't just a party but a sun-drenched escape from their drab lives. That's why they're so desperate to get out, even if it means Brit, Candy and Cotty have to rob a local diner to raise the money necessary to get there. "Just f—-in' pretend it's a video game. Act like you're in a movie or something," one of the girls says to the others.

Faith is the odd-girl-out in the foursome, a member of a Christian youth group who calls the Florida coast "the most spiritual place I've ever been." At least that's what she tells her grandmother in one of the movie's endless voice-overs, juxtaposed with images of the four girls partying hard in a hotel room and, ultimately, sitting in a jail cell after the cops find cocaine.

The girls are bailed out by a rapping street thug named Alien — played by James Franco, in a chameleonic performance complete with cornrows in his hair and grilles on his teeth. Alien's seaside mansion is loaded with drugs, cash and weapons, and the girls (except Faith, who leaves early) are attracted to his loot and dangerous attitude. When Alien gets into a turf war with a rival drug dealer (played by rapper Gucci Mane), the ladies are excited to go along for the bloody ride.

Korine, whose art-house reputation includes writing the controversial "Kids" and directing the repulsive "Trash Humpers," applies a lot of visual panache to what is essentially a straightforward exploitation scenario. With gorgeous footage that captures the spring-break party scene in all its lurid excess, he makes a thin story seem like something meatier.

He does this mainly by playing with our perceptions of performers who have made their bones in family-friendly confines. Except for Rachel Korine (the director's wife), the actresses' best-known work has been on Disney Channel — where Gomez's "Wizards of Waverly Place" and Hudgens' "High School Musical" aired — and ABC Family, home to Benson's "Pretty Little Liars." Franco, of course, is now raking in the bucks in Disney's "Oz the Great and Powerful."

Korine's use of these stars is a bit of a cheat, especially for those who see the ads and expect to see TV princesses in the buff. As for exposing the young ladies' depth, the movie also leaves us wanting some character traits besides bodacious bodies.

"Spring Breakers," in the end, is all eye candy and little substance.

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'Spring Breakers'

Bad-boy director Harmony Korine deploys some Disney-friendly actresses for a dark drama in sunny Florida.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens Friday, March 22

Rating • R for strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout.

Running time • 94 minutes.